What does the resignation on April 2, 2019, of Algerian Pres. Abdelaziz Bouteflika mean for the future of his country and the region, and why was the Algerian military so unprepared for the event? After all, Pres. Boutefilika was 82 years old, was gravely impaired by the effects of a stroke in 2013, and was clearly not engaged in day-to-day decisionmaking even as he prepared to run for a fifth term of the Presidency.
He was replaced, as Acting or Interim President, by the President of the upper chamber of Parliament, al-Majlis al-Umma/Conseil de la Nation (National Council), Abdelkader Bensalah, a close confidante of Pres. Bouteflika, until elections could be called within 90 days. But the street protests — originally against Pres. Bouteflika running for a fifth term — appeared unlikely to evaporate unless substantive moves could be made to the system which has concentrated power in the hands of the military essentially since 1965.
It was for that reason that, anticipating the unrelenting nature of the national protests, the Vice-Minister of National Defense (Pres. Bouteflika was Minister) and Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army, Lt.-Gen. Ahmed Gaïd Salah, appeared on a private television station, Ennahar, on March 26, 2019, to say that protesters demanding the retirement of the President had “legitimate” demands. He went on to invoke Article 102 of the Constitution which stated that if a serious or chronic illness of the President did not allow him to carry out his functions of office then the office was to be declared vacant. With that, Pres. Bouteflika had nowhere to go.
But even with the symbolism of Pres. Bouteflika stepping down, Lt.-Gen. Salah and the senior military figures who had shaped the Government for decades could not now afford to allow an open election process to occur in the short term. The prospect that a totally new government would subject them to intense legal scrutiny held too much personal risk. The real question is why the military-led leadership had not in recent years planned for an orderly succession from Pres. Bouteflika to avoid exactly the kind of collapse which occurred on April 2, 2019. And what is it those senior military could do now to sustain their rôle in governance and maintain stability?
The lack of succession planning to this point indicated a lack of cohesion among the military leadership, with Lt.-Gen. Salah finally — when all the writing was on the wall that Pres. Bouteflika’s situation was unsustainable — being best placed to attempt to salvage the situation.
It now seemed likely that the Armed Forces would use the legal 90-day period of interim governance by the President of the National Council to build or shape a transitional governance, with a key rôle assumed by Army Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Salah. Despite his attempt to put himself on the side of the protestors and opposition, he was, nonetheless, viewed by the Algerian public as the key strength behind the Bouteflika-led Government until its collapse.
Significantly, Nazim Taleb, of the opposition Rachab movement, said on April 2, 2019, that a transitional council was necessary to pave the way for a free and fair election in the country, but that “[National Council Pres.] Bensalah and the Army will not facilitate a free election. Bouteflika’s most trusted people are still part of the system. They don’t want a free election because they might end up in jail.”
He said that the Algerian people “want oversight of the election, to control the process so there can be a fair vote that reflects the people’s will” but that the Rachab movement was open to including representatives of the Army in any transitional body. There is little doubt that the Algerian population has been stirred by the more liberalized political environments which have emerged in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, and that any attempt by the Algerian Armed Forces to returned to the Bouteflika days would meet severe unrest.
Pres. Bouteflika’s term in office had been due to end on April 28, 2019, and proposals agreed at a meeting between opposition parties and unions called for a six-month transition period from that date. The roadmap stipulated the creation of a “presidential body” which would run Algeria during the transition period and which would be comprised of “national figures known for their credibility, integrity and competence”. But members of the body should not, the agreement said, run in future presidential elections nor back any candidates in the poll.
The proposals were made during a meeting attended by the party of Pres. Bouteflika’s key rival, former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, who had joined the opposition, and the main Islamist party, the Movement for the Society of Peace (Harakat Moudjtamaa Es-Silm/ Mouvement de la société pour la paix: MSP).
But the pace of street protests, and the sudden collapse of the President’s position changed all that. The momentum now had moved to civil society. The traditional, political opposition became marginalized by the protest movement, which has been largely led by students and professionals. Some 1,000 lawyers had protested against the Government in the days before Pres. Bouteflika resigned.
Who is likely to fish in the troubled waters?
It is probable that the neighboring Kingdom of Morocco would take most interest in the outcome in Algiers, given that the two states have fought over territory (the Sand War in 1963; the Western Sahara War of 1975-91). Currently, however, the major outstanding difference has been Algeria’s support for the POLISARIO Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el Hamra y Río de Oro) which continues to claim sovereignty over Morocco’s Sahara province. Rabat would hope for a new Algerian Government which might finally abandon that position.
But the reality is that a softening of the firm military hand which has been guiding Algeria for a half century would most likely embolden already-entrenched radical jihadist groups, particularly those linked with al-Qaida and DI’ISH (Islamic State), and particularly outside of Algiers and in the Tindouf Province abutting Morocco to the West. The formal Islamist parties of Algeria have been in disarray in recent years, but are expected to begin to coalesce to meet the anticipated political opening.
Moreover, the Turkish Government is likely to support them, particularly those close to the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan). First among these is Bouguerra Soltani’s Mouvement de la société pour la paix (MSP), which is explicitly a Muslim Brotherhood party, as is Turkey’s own governing AKP. The Algerian Government has in the past helped mediate issues on behalf of Turkey, which is why Ankara’s support until now for the MSP has been careful. Now, Ankara will wish to ensure its primacy within the post-Bouteflika administration. This automatically will engage the interest of Egypt, which is concerned over the Turkish/Ikhwan attempts to remove the present Egyptian Government.
With all this, the Algerian military may once again feel compelled to step in firmly.