Algeria politics: Where’s Boutef?

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 9th marked the first anniversary of his landslide election victory for a third term. There was not much cause for celebration. The president has been out of the public eye for much of the past 12 months, and his administration is now beset by a series of corruption investigations that risk turning policy torpor into paralysis.

Mr Bouteflika became president in 1999 after two decades in exile. The generals that have dominated Algerian political life since independence entrusted him with the task of guidingAlgeria back to some semblance of civic harmony after almost a decade of bloody strife. He applied himself to this with some vigour, pushing through a peace accord with the largest Islamist fighting group and taking steps to open up Algeria’s sluggish and state-dominated economy. He skilfully fought off a campaign from sections of the military to stop him winning a second term in 2004, and then sought to consolidate and expand the achievements of his initial period in office, notably through drawing up a Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, launching a US$60bn development plan and passing legislation to reform the oil and gas industry. However, this burst of energy was not sustained. He fell ill suddenly at the end of 2005 and was rushed to hospital in France for stomach surgery. He was out of action for most of the next year, and the final period of his second term was largely devoted to preparing the ground for constitutional amendments that would enable him to stay in office, while enhancing the powers of the presidency—although he did find the time to force through a number of measures that would make life much more complicated for foreign investors and suppliers.

Boutef bros

Having won his third mandate, while beefing up his executive power at the expense of the office of the prime minister, Mr Bouteflika has shown little interest in policy matters. His government has remained almost unchanged, but it now has even less scope to take the initiative without explicit guidance from the Mouradia (the presidential palace), where Mr Bouteflika remains closeted for long periods, with his brothers acting a gatekeepers. The family underwent a number of trials during this period. One of his brothers, Moustapha, the president’s personal physician, fell ill during 2009, and was taken to Switzerland for extensive treatment. Mr Bouteflika’s mother, to whom he was said to be devoted, died on July 5th (the anniversary of Algerian independence).

Mouradia-watching has become a staple of Algerian politics. There has been much speculation about the political ambitions of Said Bouteflika, the president’s youngest brother, who operates as an adviser and has been rumoured to be planning to establish a new political party to contest the 2012 general election. The dark horse of the family is Abderrahim (known as Nacer) Bouteflika, who is just a few years older than Said and recently represented the family at the funeral of the murdered chief of police, Ali Tounsi (he was shot dead by a senior colleague) on February 26th. Nacer is the most physically imposing and presentable of the brothers. He has worked as a senior civil servant in the education ministry for the entirety of the Bouteflika era, but is also thought to have extensive business interests. Shortly after Mr Tounsi’s funeral (following speculation about the reasons for the president’s absence) Mr Bouteflika, accompanied by Said and Moustapha, opened the doors of the Mouradia to the media to allow them to witness the brothers receiving the Algerian-origin French football star, Zinedine Zidane (and his father). Algeria’s dramatic qualification for this year’s World Cup finals has been one of the few bright points of the past 12 months.

Challenge from within

The concentration of power with Mr Bouteflika and his immediate family has been helped by the fading influence of the generals. Many leading members of the group known as the “janvierists” after their intervention in January 1992 to cancel a general election so as to forestall a victory by the Front islamique du salut have departed the scene. These include Larbi Belkheir and Said Lamari, who have died, and Khaled Nezzar and Mohammed Lamari, who have retired. The only potent challenge to Mr Bouteflika comes from Mohammed (Tewfiq) Mediene, who has held on to his position at the head of military intelligence (the Département du renseignement et de la sécurité; DRS). The DRS has taken the lead in a series of corruption investigations in recent months, among which the most politically sensitive has been the one focused on Sonatrach, the national oil and gas corporation and the fiefdom of Chakib Khalil, one of Mr Bouteflika’s closest confidants within the cabinet. Although Mr Bouteflika has publicly supported the anti-corruption campaign, it has been interpreted by many observers in Algeria as signifying the start of a new kind of power struggle in the opaque world of Algerian politics.