A Tumultuous, Informal Polyarchy: Algeria Between Clans, Old Threats and a Boiling Youth

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 2

(source: beninwebtv.com)


As Algeria enters a crucial year for its future, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s health remains extremely poor and, despite the ambitions of many in Algeria, it is unclear whether the president will be fit enough to run for a fifth term. The Algerian president never fully recovered from the stroke he suffered in 2013. The president struggles to carry out most of his basic tasks, as many Algerian media outlets pointed out after a public appearance at the El Alia cemetery to commemorate the martyrs of the revolution of November 1, 1954—the day the Algerian war of independence began (DZ Video, November 1, 2018). If Bouteflika’s health allows him to run for a fifth term, he will undoubtedly win. Despite all the problems, Bouteflika’s legitimacy remains significant in the eyes of many Algerians. He was the architect and main protagonist of the national reconciliation, taking the country out of the décennie noire (the black decade) of the civil war. The incumbent president still enjoys the support of the most important political, social and economic actors of the country—the army, although with different degrees of intensity, the major parties (FLN, RCD and others), the Forum of Business Leaders (Forum des Chefs d’Entreprise) and the General Union of Algerian Workers (Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens) (Le Point, September 7, 2018;  Le Soir d’Algerie, September 19, 2018; Algerie Focus, November 6, 2017). In addition, there is no political figure in the current Algerian political landscape capable of winning an election against Bouteflika.

That being said, the Algerian Pouvoir (the plethora of opaque and informal elites that represent the backbone of the regime) has already entered into a new phase, independent of the Bouteflika’s clan. The elites have started repositioning themselves. The political maneuvering became evident in the aftermath of the Oran cocaine scandal, when authorities seized about 701 kilograms of cocaine at the port of Oran in late May 2018. The cocaine was found in boxes marked ‘halal meat’ belonging to Kamel Chikhi, a major import baron with substantial links to the political and military establishment (Tout Sur L’Algerie, May 29, 2018). This scandal triggered a major purge in the security forces, beginning with the dismissal of the once-powerful head of the General Directorate for National Security (Directeur Général de la Sûreté Nationale—DGSN), Major General Abdelghani Hamel, who was replaced by Colonel Mustapha Lahbiri (Jeune Afrique, June 27, 2018).

While this latest development is not necessarily something new in Algerian history, the scale, rapidity and depth of this reorganization has been so significant and abrupt that it appears to be the beginning of a systemic shift toward a new balance of power. It also raises questions whether these changes might impact the efficiency of the Algerian security forces as old and new threats weigh on the country as it goes through the presidential elections in a time of economic instability and increasing uncertainty.

The ‘Return’ of the Army: Purges, Clans, and New Cleavages

One of the major achievements of the Bouteflika’s era has been the return of the presidency to the center of the national political landscape. Although the military favored his rise to the presidency at the end of the 1990s, he progressively brought the main reins of control back to the presidency, a process that culminated in the dismissal of the once powerful Department of Intelligence and Security (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité—DRS) and its historical leader, General Mohamed Mediène (a.k.a. Toufik). However, the dynamics of the recent months suggest that this trend is somehow reversing and, paradoxically, the demise of Toufik can also be considered the beginning of a new trend. The end of the DRS encouraged and strengthened the role of the Army Chief of Staff and Deputy Minister of National Defense, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, who also played a crucial role in the dismissal of the former DRS leader. Salah’s opposition to Toufik became increasingly evident between 2013 and 2015 (Jeune Afrique, June 16, 2015). The marginalization of Toufik, the deterioration of Bouteflika’s health and increasing friction between Salah and the presidential entourage concurred to reinforce Salah, whose centrality to the system is now very significant. Some press sources consider Salah the actual referee in shaping the future of the country and Bouteflika’s succession or reelection (HuffPost Maghreb, January 8, 2018).

Salah’s increasing centrality and freedom of action became evident as the reorganization of the security forces started at the end of June 2018. Three distinct groups and clans seem to be emerging within the Algerian military—Salah’s clan, officials loyal to Toufik and those loyal to General Bachir Tartag, the current head of the Department of Surveillance and Security (Département de Surveillance et de Sécurité—DSS)—heir to the DRS—and the military clan considered closer to the presidency (Monde Afrique, January 9, 2018). However, one striking element of this reorganization and rising fragmentation is that all of these officers are rather old. Salah can play the card of belonging to the “generation of 1954” to boost his legitimacy while Mediène and Tartag—the latter is much younger—entered the security forces between the 1960s and the 1970s. There is little trace of the emergence of new, younger players within the security forces. Before his dismissal, Hamel was, to a certain extent, the representative of a new generation; a military generation that was on the frontline against jihadism in the 1990s and wanted to promote a less politicized and more professional army. The continuous marginalization of this generation, however, might represent a further problem that the Algerian leadership and security forces will have to cope with in the coming years, and will interlock with the current power competition within the army. The above-described dynamics are occurring in a security environment in which security risks are diversifying. There are classic security threats, such as jihadism, but also new and more fluid threats associated with economic problems and the potential for youth protests and discontent.

A Still Relevant Terrorist Threat

The regional presence of jihadist organizations, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State (IS), while not being systemic threats, still represent a problem. The latter has struggled to establish itself in Algeria, but its reorganization in Libya and the freedom of movement it enjoys there represents a significant concern for the Algerian leader (See Terrorism Monitor, December 3, 2018). After eradicating the domestic threat posed by AQIM’s predecessors—the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (Groupe Islamique Armé—GIA) and the Islamic Group for Preaching and Combat (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat—GSPC)—between the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Algerian counter-terrorism pressure pushed the organization away from the national territory. AQIM went through a major, strategic change, becoming more focused on the Sahel, while the Maghrebi area serves more as a logistics base (See Terrorism Monitor, May 5, 2017).

While AQIM does not represent the existential threat that its predecessors represented, it still has the capability to strike Algeria, as the In Amenas attack proved. The memory of this attack is particularly relevant as the Algerian oil sector continues to suffer from numerous problems and the country’s leadership is desperately trying to revive it (Le Bourse {Algiers}, January 13; Liberte Algerie, January 13).  The CEO of Sonatrach, Abdelmoumene Ould Kaddour, has increased efforts to bring international oil companies back to the country. Eni and Total recently signed agreements with Sonatrach to start offshore explorations (El Watan, October 30, 2018). An increased presence of international oil companies in the country, however, could represent a tempting occasion for a group such as AQIM, which has recently released statements and threats concerning the potential for “economic jihad” in the Maghreb.

Economic jihad could represent a cost-effective opportunity for the group to regain greater operational capability in the Maghreb, not necessarily with an attack as sophisticated as the one of In Amenas, but potentially with less sophisticated attacks involving smaller cells that require less training and resources and have greater freedom of movement. Against this backdrop, an increasingly divided army could exacerbate Algeria’s vulnerability to such threats. The abrupt changes in the leadership of several units, military regions, etc. might reduce the short-term capacities of local units in the transitional period while the new leaders get acquainted with the realities in which they are called to operate. Although many of the military chiefs that took over are seasoned military officers, the local peculiarities of each Algerian territory necessarily require time to adapt and grasp their complexity. The perception of uncertainty burdening the army might reduce its efficiency, as local military chiefs put more energy into playing politics to avoid problems or take advantage of the situation. Lastly, ambitious lower-ranking officials might perceive this period of increasing fragmentation and shifting balances within the army as an opportunity to pursue their ambitions. While these elements do not necessarily imply a weakening of the Algerian security capacities—which remain significant particularly on a regional level—at the same time they can create short-term vulnerabilities that regional terrorist actors can exploit. 

Economic Fragility, Youth Ambitions, and New Risks

Traditional security threats are not the only significant threats Algeria will face in the coming months and years that can be exacerbated by growing fragmentation within the army and the political elites. The economy represents a major problem with the potential to undermine stability more than terrorism. Algeria has experienced a tumultuous economic period since 2014, when global oil prices plummeted. However, as global oil prices regained some momentum, Algeria increased government spending by 7.9 percent, turning slightly away from years of austerity. (Jeune Afrique, November 28, 2017, La Tribune, October 10, 2017).

The next five years will likely be particularly troublesome. The first generation that did not experience the civil war in person will enter the job market as low-skilled workers or as young, ambitious graduates. While many of them have family stories concerning the brutality of those years, they have not experienced this violence directly. In addition, these new generations are not used to the methods and the logic that have characterized protest movements in Algeria over the past twenty years. While the Algerian population is often misleadingly described as apathetic, it is in fact very lively. Protests and strikes are widespread in Algeria.

In many cases, protests serve as a means to access material benefits and, from a functional perspective, replace ballots. The protests rarely question the legitimacy of the regime and the system, and security forces have avoided cracking down on them too harshly to avoid turning them into a unified, national protest front. These protests often have a local and material focus and fade as soon as demands are met. However, for the younger generations, this logic might not be valid. First, they are not “socialized” to these methods of protests, and might express their dissatisfaction in more troublesome and violent ways. Secondly, there is a shift in the models of life and the ambitions of Algerian youth. This is evident in the rapid and widespread success of Algerian hip hop, rap, and trap singers and the symbolic universe this music promotes.

The videos and the songs of these artists receive millions of views on YouTube and other social media platforms, and represent a microcosm of the ambitions of many young Algerians: living a more glamorous and materialist life compared to that of their parents, with global brands, shopping in European capitals, powerful cars, and an opening to the external world that represents a rupture with the classic Algerian obsession for autarchy. The Algerian elites are increasingly aware of the threat represented by this dynamic. In October 2018, the Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said openly that the riots of October 5, 1988—the beginning of the process that culminated in the elections in which the FIS won—did not signal the beginning of the democratic development of Algeria, but were instead what brought the country towards “anarchy, then instability and finally barbaric terrorism” (Algerie Press Service, October 6, 2018). In early 2019, Salah also warned that without stability there could not be development (Maghreb Emergent, January 10).

These younger generations, while having family memories and narratives of violence, will be the first generation that did not experience the direct destruction of the civil war. As such, the psychological buffer represented by the memory of the civil war will inevitably erode. They are not accustomed to the logic of protests which have characterized Algeria over the past 20 years. This implies that the logic of protests to access material benefits might soon be replaced by the logic of protest against a system that does not allow them to live the life they desire. This can increase the potential for instability, or worse, create a social environment in which radical ideologies can spread.


Independent of Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term, the transition and reorganization of the Algerian pouvoir has begun, and the restructuring and purges in the security forces are a clear signal that this reorganization has systemic depth and that elites’ infighting is becoming more visible to the public. Against this backdrop, Salah is playing an increasingly central role and becoming more independent from the presidential clan as he tries to place himself at the center of the system to influence the process in the coming years. This dynamic has triggered the reaction of other key power players within the security forces, causing increased factionalization within the army. This evolution interlocks with the presence of old threats, such as terrorism, and new ones, such as the emergence of major economic problems and the presence of youth with a lifestyle more open to the world and less autarchic. Jihadism is not the existential threat it was in the 1990s but is still an underlying threat, particularly for the ailing Algerian oil sector. Algerian youth are not accustomed to the methods of protests that have characterized Algeria. They are the first generation entering the job market without a direct memory of the civil war, and their specific models of consumption and behavior suggest that they have the ambition to live a more globalized and materially richer life than their parents. A troubled political transition and increasing divisions within the security forces will exacerbate the potential impact of these threats and can pose severe problems for Algeria in the coming years.