This looks like the year that Islamic terrorism fades to nearly nothing. Clashes with armed Islamic terrorists have been declining all year, as have arrests of Islamic terrorist supporters or unarmed terrorists. While that is good news it does not mean that widespread violence is not still possible. Popular anger at the corrupt and inefficient government grows and even the government is unsure how much the unrest has influenced the loyalty of soldiers and police, especially if these forces are called on to suppress a popular uprising. Algerians are mad at everyone in government, from the incapacitated president to the local clerk or cop who wants a bribe to do his job (or not).
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is apparently running for reelection in 2019. Bouteflika did not make the announcement because his stroke (or strokes) have left him unable to speak. His 60 year brother Said and Army chief-of-staff Ahmed Gaid Salah now appear to be running things and that does not make the government anymore acceptable. The younger brother has been a key aide, especially in supervising (and fixing as needed) Abdelaziz Bouteflikas’ election campaigns since the 1990s. Because of that, it is not considered unusual that Said Bouteflika is the one who communicates with his older brother and passes on his instructions. Meanwhile, all the senior military and police commanders who might oppose the stealthy government takeover of Said Bouteflika have been arrested and accused of corruption. This was apparently supervised by Army chief-of-staff Ahmed Gaid Salah. Said Bouteflika knows who is corrupt because one of his jobs was to see to it that there were no unseemly feuds among senior officials over who got what in corrupt deals. Said Bouteflika never managed to gain enough key supporters, or popular support, to run for high office. Until now he has been content to be the kingmaker. But now it is feared he may try to succeed his brother. Many believe Said Bouteflika has too many enemies for that, which adds to the unease about how the Bouteflika era will end. Most Algerians would prefer honest government and a lot less corruption but the Bouteflikas would prefer to keep things as they are.
Many members of parliament are willing to do whatever they can to clean up the government before there is another civil war over the matter. The unrest in parliament, which many members are boycotting, is a sign of things to come. The 2017 parliamentary elections were seen as the model for what to expect during the 2019 presidential elections, where the disabled (by a stroke and, at 81, old age) incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika appears to be the only major candidate. As he did in 2014 Bouteflika will cast his own vote, for himself, from a wheelchair. With Bouteflika largely a figurehead president the government runs on automatic (supervised by the younger brother of the president) seeking to keep themselves in power and out of trouble with an increasingly restless population. At this point, half the 40 million Algerians are too young (under 30) to remember a time Bouteflika was not the president or what it was like to have a president who was alert and able to do the job. Bouteflika and his associates have eliminated all potential rivals (via forced retirement or arrest and prosecution for imaginary offenses) but have not removed the corruption and government mismanagement that most Algerians are increasingly concerned about.
Bouteflika is also the last major politician who participated in the rebellion against French rule that led to Algerian independence in 1962. That ended 132 years of colonial rule (originally imposed to shut down for good the centuries of raids by Barbary Pirates and Saracen Corsairs operating from Algerian ports). The pirates did not return when the French left but the pre-colonial tradition of corrupt and inept rule by autocratic leaders did. In 1962 Algeria chose democracy, one of many bits of French culture the Algerians adopted (to one degree or another) during the colonial period. Democracy and the many personal freedoms the West takes for granted did not thrive in independent Algeria and one response to the inept post-colonial government was a call for an Islamic religious dictatorship (controlled by clerics). This led to a brutal and bloody civil war in the 1990s that made quite an impression on most Algerians and eliminated, for a few generations, any potential popular support for another “Islamic solution.”
Meanwhile, Algerians have to put up with elections that are rigged, at least enough to ensure the ruling party maintains its controlling majority. Government efforts to get more people to vote have failed, with only 29 percent of eligible voters participating in 2017 compared to 34 percent in 2012. The greatest concern of the government was getting enough people to participate. The number of young Algerians participating in anti-government protests continues to rise. The government has been pretending to reform the political system but that is widely seen as another sad failure.
In 2016 parliament passed much-needed changes to the constitution. But reformers were not impressed because as long as power is monopolized by a few families (which were prominent in the 1960s rebellion against France) new laws will not change anything and in this case, they did not. That’s because some of the “new” reforms were implemented in the past but then canceled when it suited the corrupt ruling families. Unless the government introduces and enforces honest voting and then obeys the law, there can be no real reform. This is a common pattern worldwide and especially in the Middle East. Everyone knows that corruption and bad government are the main cause of stagnant economies and general unrest but not enough of those in charge are willing to give up enough power to fix the problem. In part, this is because of the well-founded (in history) fear that another group of corrupt officials will resume the practice of rigging elections. This issue is something most Algerians can understand and appreciate and it is making it difficult for another corrupt dynasty to get organized. Said Bouteflika apparently realizes this but he has no easy way out. Comfortable exile these days is accompanied by endless lawsuits and threats of war crimes prosecution. Trying to keep the Bouteflika clan in power risks another civil war. There is no easy way out of the mess.
October 21, 2018: In the north (Tissemsilt Province) police arrested 17 people suspected of providing support for Islamic terrorists. There have been more of these arrests in the last year as the support networks for recruiting and sending recruits to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria fell apart. With the threat of ISIL retaliation no longer in play, these networks began to come apart and people caught for other crimes would provide information. Many of these “supporters” were mainly in it for the money.
October 18, 2018: The government banned female government workers from wearing face-covering veils while on the job. Not many Algerian women do wear the face-covering veil but the government saw this as a necessary precaution in case Islamic terrorists became popular once more. Some Islamic clerics and politicians protested but they were a small minority.
October 14, 2018: A court approved the imprisonment of five generals accused of corruption.
October 4, 2018: In the southwest (Tindouf Province), police arrested an Islamic cleric and charged him with supporting Islamic terrorism. The cleric was living in a refugee camp for people from Western Sahara. Police had earlier arrested two more suspects in this camp for involvement with Islamic terrorists. Algeria has long tried to avoid confronting the growing problem with Islamic terrorists and criminal activity in these camps. That is changing as is the Algerian attitude towards Polisario. Back in April Algeria assured neighbor Morocco and the UN that it no longer had anything to do with Polisario, a group of Moroccan terrorists that Algeria helped create decades ago. Then on April 11th an Algerian Air Force transport crashed on takeoff and among the 257 dead were 26 Polisario members. The transport was taking off from a base near the Algerian capital carrying mainly military personnel. This was more than an embarrassment, it confirmed the accusations that Algeria could not be trusted when it came to Polisario, and perhaps other matters as well. For example, Algeria is one of the few Sunni majority Arab countries that supports the Syrian Assad government. Algeria is a major customer for Russian weapons and admirer of current Russian politics (the creation of a “president for life” in what is supposed to be a democracy), which is now very similar to what Algeria has had since the 1960s. Back (before 1991) when Russia was the Soviet Union the Russians backed Algerian efforts to support and encourage Polisario and thereby weaken neighbor Morocco (which was, and still is, a centuries-old monarchy and a more efficient government than the democratic dictatorship in Algeria). Morocco has accused Algerian leaders of being lying hypocrites and now the UN and many other nearby nations are agreeing with that.
Polisario has always caused problems with neighboring Morocco and the problem got worse in 2013. Algeria and Morocco recalled ambassadors and there was talk of escalation. This made cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts (or anything else) with Morocco impossible. Meanwhile, Polisario provided Islamic terrorists safe haven in Polisario refugee camps in Algeria (90,000 refugees) and Mauritania (24,000). This is all connected with the declining prospects of Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then, Morocco finally won its war with Polisario Front rebels, who were seeking independence for the Western Sahara (a region south of Morocco). Polisario remains powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several refugee camps. At the beginning (the 1960s), Polisario was so well-subsidized by Algeria, back when Algeria was a radical state, that Polisario still had enough diehards out there to keep lots of people in Western Sahara unhappy. This situation has also provided recruits and sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. Since the 1990s the UN has been trying to work out a final peace deal between Polisario and Morocco. During the 1990s Algeria said it cut off all support for Polisario. But that, and UN efforts to mediate the differences have just not worked. The contested area is largely desert with a current population of less than 600,000. Logic would have it that the area is better off as a part of Morocco. But there are still thousands of locals who would rather fight for independence than submit to Morocco.
Some resistance is tribal and cultural, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders. The area was administered until 1976 as a Spanish colony. Most Western Saharans have made peace with Moroccan rule, especially since Morocco has been spending a billion dollars a year on infrastructure and other improvements and doing so for decades. Western Sahara is a much nicer place because of that. Polisario still has several thousand armed men based in the refugee camps and refuses to accept Moroccan rule of Western Sahara. Polisario has become an outlaw organization with no real purpose. If the fighting breaks out again, Morocco could defeat Polisario, but Polisario still has a sanctuary in the Algerian refugee camps. There Polisario discourages any talk of peacefully returning to Western Sahara, even though a growing number of the camp inmates are quietly doing that. The refugee camps have become police states run by Polisario and tolerated, until now, by Algeria. As more veteran Algerian Islamic terrorists are captured or surrender the information they provide keeps pointing back to Polisario as a major source of support for AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and its lucrative smuggling (drugs, people, weapons) from the south into Algeria. Polisario was hoping to avoid a major confrontation with Algerian security forces over this that is becoming more difficult to do.