Algeria’s Political Transition Begins in the Midst of Major Security Challenges

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 9

Source: Wikipedia

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika won his fourth term in office on April 17, when he took over 81 percent of the vote in presidential elections. Former prime minister Ali Benflis failed in his second attempt to unseat Bouteflika, taking only 12 percent of the vote (Algeria Press Service, April 23, 2014). The turnout was 51.7 percent, down from the 75 percent turnout in 2009 (El Watan [Algiers], April 18). In Algiers, turnout was at 37 percent, while in some areas historically resistant to central control – for instance Tizi Ouzou in Kabylia – four out of five citizens did not vote. [1] This is significant, as it shows the increasing apathy of many Algerians toward the system. Nevertheless, despite accusations by Benflis concerning electoral frauds and irregularities, dismissing these elections as irrelevant simply because the result was largely predictable would be misleading (al-Arabiya, April 18).

Bouteflika still enjoys a significant degree of support and legitimacy in the eyes of many Algerians, as he is considered the person who took Algeria out of the abyss of civil war. Moreover, his patronage networks and paternalistic policies buy him a significant, inter-class and geographically widespread support. Despite his poor health, he has remained the only name on which most of the different actors of the country could agree. This fourth term will likely be a term of transition to a new configuration of power, however, since a number of generational, social and political developments will put pressure on the system.

The Pluralization of the Algerian Political System and the Role of Bouteflika

Historically, the military has played a fundamental role in Algerian politics. The dominance of the military over the system increased during the “Black decade” of the 1990s. The election of Bouteflika in 1999 signaled the beginning of new era. Four years earlier, Bouteflika declined an offer to run in the presidential elections. He later changed his mind and was considered the “candidat du consensus,” which he remains despite a series of significant changes (Jeune Afrique, April 18).

At that time, Algeria needed someone with significant internal legitimacy and who was well-known and respected abroad since Algeria was facing major international isolation because of the civil war. That was the profile of Bouteflika. Since then, he has worked to reduce, on one hand, the dominance of the military over the system and, on the other, to increase room for the presidency to maneuver.

Since then, he has worked to reduce the overall dominance of the military over the system through the selective and tactical support of some security groups against others. In the early years of his presidency, Bouteflika sought the support of the Département du renseignement et de la sécurité (DRS – Algeria’s senior intelligence and security service) to reduce the power of the army. The DRS was similarly interested in increasing its relative power over other sectors of the military. From 2010 onward, however, Bouteflike returned to supporting some elements of the army against the DRS to increase room for the presidency to maneuver. In a way, Bouteflika “presidentialized” what was presidential only on paper, but only to a limited degree.

This did not mean the end of military influence over the system, but rather the emergence of a duopoly that has dominated the Algerian political system over the past fifteen years. The military and the DRS remain significant and fundamental pillars of the system but no longer enjoy the power they had until the late 1990s. The army agreed to end its (direct) interference in politics and the constitutional changes that occurred in 2008 introduced an increase in presidential powers. In this period, the importance of the DRS increased but the tactical alliance with Bouteflika had begun to fade. The decision of Bouteflika to run again, despite his poor health, actually confirms this situation. If the DRS dominates the system –and it has tried to weaken Bouteflika and his clan over the past years in the battle for control of Sonatrach (the government-owned energy company) and by issuing allegations of corruption – why did the DRS accept Bouteflika’s return? It is because the DRS now recognizes the existence of this duality of power and the limits to its activity. Some of the higher military rankings support Bouteflika, including the Algerian army’s chief-of-staff and deputy defense minister, Lieutenant General Ahmad Kaid Saleh. Moreover, the DRS and the Algerian army are undergoing a series of major internal and generational challenges.

DRS chief General Muhammad Mediene (a.k.a. Toufik) and his supporters remain key players in the Algerian political balance, but there is now a new generation of generals in their forties and fifties running military regions and operational units who are craving for change. Moreover, there is an ongoing – though slow – process of elite pluralization in Algeria. This will have a significant role in the future configuration of power in Algeria and on the system that will be crafted over the next years.

Looking Ahead: Security Challenges for Algeria in Bouteflika’s Fourth Term

During Bouteflika’s next term, the Algerian state can be expected to face four major challenges, although these do not exclude the possible of other unexpected problems. As of now, these are the most important challenges that the Algerian power will face:

· Jihadism and a complex regional order

Historically, radical Islamist militancy has represented the most important security challenge for the Algerian government. Shortly after the election, there was been a major attack in the commune of Iboudraren (50 kilometers southeast of Tizi-Ouzou), in which 14 Algerian soldiers were killed (Algeria Press Service, April 20). At the time of writing, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had not claimed responsibility for this attack (al-Jazeera, April 20). However, while radical Islamist militancy remains a serious concern, it is no longer the existential challenge that Algeria faced during the 1990s.

While Algeria remains the major rhetorical target of AQIM, a series of changing circumstances – successful counter-terrorist operations by the Algerian state, the declining popular appeal of radical Islamism, the opening of “windows of strategic opportunities” in the Sahara and the Sahel and the “internationalization” of the brand after joining al-Qaeda following years of mutual distrust between al-Qaeda and Algerian jihadists – has led AQIM to partially change its focus.

The Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC – AQIM’s predecessor in Algeria), initiated the geographical shift that led Algerian terrorism to become increasingly involved in the Sahelian strip, while the re-branding as AQIM led first to the adoption of al-Qaeda style attacks in Algeria between 2007-2008, and then to a greater focus by the organization on illicit activities rather than pure jihad, especially in the Sahelian strip. This culminated in the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 that pushed external actors – namely, France and members of the African Union – to intervene. While jihadism is no longer an existential threat within Algerian borders, it nevertheless remains a major security concern, as it has the potential to destabilize the Algerian neighborhood, especially Mali and Libya. 

· A revival of independence-autonomist tendencies in Kabylia

In the wider North Africa region, the Arab Spring meant a revival of the Berber (Amazigh) presence in the public space, especially in Libya (Slate Afrique, August 11, 2011; Jeune Afrique, October 18, 2011). In Algeria, however, it would be misleading to talk generally about a “Berber question.” Berber people are well integrated in the social, political and economic structure of the country. Ali Benflis is Berber himself (he is a Shawi [a.k.a. Chaoui], from the Shawiya of the Aurès Mountains). The real question regards the persistence of independent and anti-central sentiments in Kabylia, a mountainous area in north-east Algeria with specific cultural and identity features. These sentiments distinguish this group from the other Berber groups present in Algeria (the already mentioned Shawiya, the Mozabites and the Tuareg). People in Kabylia have already been protagonists in two major revolts against the Algerian state: the so-called Berber Spring of the 1980s, and the “black spring” of early 2000, which led to a major government crackdown on protests in the region. Tension in the region is far from being dissipated. AQIM has a significant presence left in the area – Abd al-Malik Droukdel has his headquarters there – while the feeling of alienation from the Algerian state and its Arab-centered identity remains significant. As such, the emergence of a more active and significant opposition to the central state in Kabylia remains a major issue, although the divisions with the wider Berber population of Algeria and the significant presence of Berber personalities within the national system should prevent this from becoming an issue of systemic impact.

· Problems in the hydrocarbon sector

As of 2011, the Algerian oil and gas sector generated roughly 97 percent of overall exports, 70 percent of budget receipts and about 37 percent of GDP (down from 43.7 percent in 2007). [2] This drop was, however, not due to a greater diversification of the Algerian economy, but to the downward trend of its hydrocarbon production. As shown during the 1980s, a major drop in oil and gas revenues – in that period due to a sharp decline in global energy prices – raised the potential for destabilization in the country. Algeria’s oil and gas sector is caught in a web of different problems; scarce investment, ageing equipment and mismanagement have reduced production capacities. Moreover, a weak legal and regulatory environment is de-incentivizing investment. The attack on the In Aménas gas facilities in 2013 still represents a psychological burden for companies otherwise willing to invest in Algeria. However, its overall impact should not be overestimated. The problems burdening the oil and gas sector in Algeria are not only limited to the security of companies operating in the region. Moreover, since authorities adopted a rather expansionary fiscal stance to cope with the regional wave of protests in 2011, they postponed the reduction of energy subsidies (see Terrorism Monitor, November 17, 2011). This led to an increase in domestic consumption, reducing export capacity. Finally, dependence on oil and gas makes Algeria prone to external shocks (for instance, a sudden decline in global energy prices). All these elements make the stability of the oil and gas sector a major security issue, as its economy – and the capacity to use economic instruments to cool down social and political tension – depends entirely on these dynamics.

· Social tension and an “Arab Spring” style revolt

As noted, Algeria was able to avoid the wave of “Arab Spring” protests. However, the re-election of Bouteflika led to the emergence of protests from a number of social and political movements. Notably, in the weeks before the election, there was the emergence of a new opposition platform, the Barakat (Enough) movement. [3] In its manifesto, the movement describes itself as a “peaceful, national citizen movement that is autonomous and non-partisan, and that campaigns for the establishment of democracy, and of a state subject to the rule of law and justice in Algeria.” [4] The movement also calls for an end to hogra, the feeling of injustice and humiliation that ordinary citizens experience in dealing with the authorities, a typical element of social narratives in the Maghreb. Hogra was central in triggering the revolution in Tunisia, for instance.

However, while the potential impact of this movement should not be underestimated, at the moment its capacity to trigger a major revolt against authorities is somewhat limited for a series of reasons. First of all, Algerians value stability and security greatly, above all bearing in mind what happened in the 1990s during the “Black decade” of the civil war. Although unemployment – especially among youngsters – remains particularly high, corruption rampant and housing in short supply, the memory of the civil war still presents a major psychological burden. Recent events in Egypt, Libya and Syria are powerful reminders of the chaos that countries going through revolutionary processes may face.

Finally, the “international momentum” in support of these changes is diminishing. The Arab Spring revolts were supported by external actors and, above all in the case of Libya, success was seized only thanks to significant external military support. However, the stalemate in Syria and the post-revolutionary chaos in Egypt and Libya have reduced the commitment of external actors to support revolutionary destabilization in the Mediterranean. In the specific case of Algeria, there are two other elements to take in consideration. The ongoing escalation in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, its potential impact on world gas and oil supplies and prices and the fragile situation in the Sahel and Libya suggest a more cautious approach towards a possible destabilization of Algeria. That is why European countries, as well as the United States, have a strong interest in a stable and functioning Algeria. Among the four major risks assessed, this is – at the moment – the least significant.


Describing the Algerian system as dominated only by the army and the DRS would be misleading. The Algerian system is now centered on a duopoly: the army and the DRS on one side, with significant internal and generational cleavages, and the president and his clan on the other side. In the wake of this duopoly, there is also a rising pluralization of the Algerian elites, which will likely emerge more visibly over the next years. The fourth term in power for Bouteflika will be likely a transitional period leading towards a new configuration of the governing system. The elections showed that Bouteflika still enjoys a significant legitimacy, although elections in Algeria can hardly be considered completely free and fair. Yet, the significant numbers who abstained from voting is a sign of widespread apathy and discontent with the system. In this context, Algeria will face four major security challenges. Jihadism and regional destabilization and the problems of its oil and gas sector are the most urgent, while the revival of independence aspirations in Kabylia and a violent internal revolution remain possible, but not as urgent as the other two challenges.

Dario Cristiani is a PhD Candidate in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London. Previously, he has been a teaching fellow in Political Science and Comparative Politics at the University of Naples "L’Orientale" and a political analyst with the Power and Interest News Report (PINR).



2. Algeria – African Economic Outlook,