Algeria: A Very Real Succession Crises

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January 17, 2019: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (or his handlers) keep putting off the official announcement that he is, or is not running for reelection in 2019. The elections are in mid-April and Bouteflika is incapacitated and unlikely to recover. Bouteflika apparently cannot even make an announcement on TV because his stroke (or strokes) have left him unable to speak. Because of the health problems, Bouteflika could still withdraw but his allies have no one with the name recognition and track record of the elderly president. Few of the senior leaders want a real election with other political parties putting forward candidates. That is unwelcome because most of the presidential candidates would be running on a strong anti-corruption platform that would probably include promises to recover money stolen by the previous government (which has been in power since the 1990s.)

The corruption implicit in this election indecision has caused growing anger among younger Algerians who see it as an example of a government so corrupt and incompetent it cannot even decide how to cheat in the next presidential election. If the government cannot stage a convincing rigged election there could be another uprising. This one would not be led by Islamic radicals as in the 1990s but more secular leaders seeking votes from the largest (55 percent of Algerians are under 30) block of voters; the young and under-employed generation that is secular and losing patience with an unresponsive government. The close associates of Bouteflika cannot agree who should step up and be the official Bouteflika-backed candidate. The ruling party must win because if an opposition candidate wins there will be investigations and prosecutions of Bouteflika loyalists for corruption.

With president Bouteflika incapacitated his much less popular 60 year brother Said and Army chief-of-staff Ahmed Gaid Salah now appear to be in charge and that does not make the government any more acceptable. The younger brother has been a key aide, especially in supervising (and fixing as needed) his older brothers’ 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, or at least what Said believes are his brothers’ intentions.

One of Said’s intentions is apparently to succeed his brother as president. Another of those intentions has been that all the senior military and police commanders who might oppose the stealthy government takeover by Said Bouteflika to be 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. That has changed and it appears Said now sees himself as a prime candidate 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. That attitude, shared by most, but not all, of those running the country, is the major obstacle to meaningful change in Algeria. The corruption prevents rewarding the most capable people and generating enough economic activity to make Algeria a place most young Algerians would want to live and work. For a long time, too many young Algerians either rebelled (at great cost to themselves and Algeria) or emigrate.

Economic Clarity

Foreign economists believe Algeria will experience continued economic growth, with GDP growing in 2019 and 2020 at about the same rate (2.5 percent) as it did in 2018. While Algeria is one of the most stable and safe nations in North Africa (and Africa as a whole) some foreign analysts point out that Algeria still suffers from some fundamental problems like widespread corruption. This includes, including rigged elections that make it impossible for reformers to get elected no matter how popular they are. What makes this particularly dangerous is the growing number of young Algerians who cannot find work and are having a more difficult time getting into Western nations illegally (doing it legally takes a long time and success is uncertain). Young Algerians note that the government was able to overcome its corrupt practices to deal with the economic crises created by lower oil prices since 2013. But calls for similar reforms elsewhere in the economy and politics have been ignored.

All Quiet On The Algerian Front

While there are still hundreds of active Islamic terrorists in Algeria, and thousands of supporters, the security services are still more numerous and effective than the surviving Islamic terrorists. There is some Islamic terrorist activity but most of it is defensive as Islamic terrorists who are cornered often fight back rather than surrender. There are many more Islamic terrorists who have unofficially retired but have hidden weapons and explosives out in the hills. Army patrols continue to find these hidden stockpiles and while many have been there for over a decade (their owners apparently dead) some of these stockpiles are recent or show signs of being checked regularly.

January 10, 2019: Algeria has criticized Turkey, again, because for the second time since mid-December Libyan port officials have found large quantities of Turkish weapons concealed in shipments of food or consumer goods. Libya is still suffering from the disorder and the lack of a united government and still harbors the largest concentration of active Islamic terrorists in North Africa. Weapons imports are currently forbidden by international sanctions. Turkey is a major manufacturer of weapons in the region, especially small arms. These are often bought by arms smugglers who sneak them into areas where new weapons are hard to come by and buyers are willing to pay more. The Turkish government is accused of tolerating this smuggling if it is going to help the Islamic terror groups the current Turkish governments tolerate. There is some truth to that but the Turkish arms smugglers have been around a lot longer than the current Turkish government.

January 9, 2019: The navy put two new Russian Kilo class submarines into service. These had been ordered in 2014. The army also showed off six of its new Chinese SM4 self-propelled 120mm mortars. Algeria has the highest defense spending in Africa (about $10 billion a year), which is a bit more than twice what second place Sudan spends. Algeria accounts for about half the foreign weapons purchases throughout Africa and gets most of its new gear from Russia. Algeria keeps the Russians honest and attentive by also purchasing more weapons from China, which has a reputation for building Russian weapons better than the Russians. A 2007 plan to spend $7.5 billion on programs to upgrade a lot of Cold War era weapons and equipment included getting 300 new Russian T-90 tanks and 1,200 German wheeled armored personnel carriers. Russia and Germany are also providing new warships for the navy and dozens of Russian Su-30 warplanes. Russia offers low prices and a tolerant attitude towards corruption and bribes. Plus, the Russian stuff looks impressive and is not likely to be used in any serious fighting because Algeria is surrounded by nations that have been generally non-threatening for a long time. The government has been quietly canceling or delaying military procurement deals because of the sustained low oil prices. This includes nearly a billion dollars’ worth of Russian arms and a $1.1 billion deal with an American firm to provide three Gulfstream business jets equipped to perform radar, optical and electronic surveillance. This militarized Gulfstream purchase was made in 2015, just as the low oil prices became a long-term, not a short-term problem.

January 8, 2019: The United States issued a travel warning for Americans visiting Algeria. The warning explained that there were still Islamic terror groups in various parts of Algeria (especially the Libyan and Tunisian borders) who often carry out attacks without warning. Foreign tourists are considered prime targets, especially as captives held for ransom. Tunisia, which is enjoying a record year for foreign tourism, sent more troops to guard the Algerian border.

January 5, 2019: Security on the southern border was increased to block the growing number of illegal migrants, especially Syrians. Algeria has found some Islamic terrorists among the Syrian illegals and is turning all Syrians back, no matter what passport they are carrying. The Syrian accent, as with most Arab dialects, is distinctive. Most other illegals can get through if the smugglers bringing them to pay the right bribes to the right people. Algeria rarely interferes with the smugglers as long as the illegals are headed elsewhere (usually to Europe).

January 2, 2019: Despite the continued chaos in neighboring Libya, peace is slowing returning to many parts of the country, especially oil and natural gas producing areas. Some of these are on the Algerian border where the still functioning Libyan National Oil Company is reviving dormant joint oil projects with the Algerian state-owned oil company.

December 15, 2018: In the south, Mali decided to reinforce security on the Algerian border by creating a new border guard force. This will consist of about 350 paramilitary police who will be operating up there sometime in early 2019. That portion of the border is where most of the smuggling takes place and is a major transit point for drug shipments headed to the Mediterranean coast and Europe. AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) finances its operations by providing security for these shipments from central Africa (where cocaine is flown in from South America) to the Algerian border. The presence of the AQIM gunmen keeps the peacekeepers and Mali security forces occupied while other outlaws (often from local tribes) make life miserable for travelers and civilians in general.

 

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