Algeria: Hollow Victories

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June 17, 2019: The protests that began in February, ousted the unpopular, disabled (by strokes) and corrupt president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his FLN (the ruling party) by April, continue. The protestors want all of the ousted president’s corrupt allies out of a job. That is important enough to keep demonstrations going because it is now accepted that if you don’t clean house, elements of the old corrupt government will soon be back in power and again getting away with their corrupt practices that have caused so many economic and political problems in Algeria.

The main target of the protests are Bouteflika associates running the interim government. The leader of this interim government is armed forces commander and vice minister of defense Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has been playing kingmaker as he was the one who convinced Bouteflika to step down without a fight. Popular support for Salah is not there in a big way but public demonstrations against him are less angry the more Salah does to address grievances. This includes Salah ordering the arrests of many senior officials (including Said Bouteflika), generals and prominent businessmen and charging them with conspiring against the state, undermining military authority and corruption. This helps the opposition politicians, who can now act more freely and openly than ever before. That has not been enough so far because the opposition parties have had a hard time expanding their operations so that they can handle local or national elections. For decades the FLN limited the ability of potential rival parties to gain any traction.

The opposition may never fully accept general Salah but for the moment they need him to keep doing things that reduce the number of establishment supporters who want to prevent the opposition politicians from running fair elections and putting untainted (by links to the old government) people in charge. It is proving difficult to find untainted replacements for senior jobs. That problem will not go away because the corruption went deep and wide. So far the opposition parties are not coming together quickly enough to supply suitable replacements for all the senior officials being ousted and, in most cases, charged with corruption.

Many Algerians fear Salah wants to become president like Egyptian general Sisi did when the first post-2011 revolution Egyptian government turned out to be not what people wanted or needed. But so far Salah is not running for office and national elections (for a new president and parliament). The Friday protests continue and will continue until most Algerians are convinced that there is a new government selected by a fair election and an economy free of government corruption. The corruption angle will be the most difficult to achieve because corruption has been around a long time and is part of the local culture. What people want is new standards of acceptable behavior that will eliminate the degree of corruption that makes good government and economic growth difficult. That, by its very definition, is going to be difficult to agree on, much less implement. In the near term, most Algerians will be content with some visible progress in that direction and they have been seeing some progress since February but, so far, not enough.

General Salah thought that continually arresting the wicked would, for as long as the supply of usual suspects lasted, keep the protests from escalating out of control. Those continued arrests were also meant to mute calls for the removal of Salah, who was one of the main associates of the Bouteflika clan and is the last of these Bouteflika era leaders still in power ten weeks after Bouteflika resigned. The arrests have muted but not silenced loud calls for Salah to resign. Salah cannot completely separate himself from his past.

Salah supporters point out that keeping the experienced general in power for the moment is useful because he can be depended on to maintain the pressure on any Islamic conservative groups trying to gain power or attention. While there are Islamic political parties in Algeria, since the Islamic terrorist insurrection of the 1990s there has been little public support for “Islamic rule” or Islamic radicalism. One thing the senior military leaders have in common is they are all veterans of the 1990s war with Islamic terrorism. It has not gone unnoticed that many of these officers have been removed from the military in the last few years for advocating a crackdown on corruption. It was the pervasive corruption that made the Islamic radicals so popular in the early 1990s, but not popular enough to establish an Islamic state. Salah supported Bouteflika for two decades, which is one reason he is a senior general.

There are still Islamic terrorists out and about in the region (mainly Libya, Mali and Tunisia) and less so inside Algeria. The security forces are still conducting their searches for remaining Islamic terrorists or evidence (abandoned stockpiles of weapons and gear) of former activity. There are still a lot of soldiers and police guarding the borders with Mali, Niger and Libya. But what is going on with the counter-terrorism effort will get less attention than the effort to create a new government. There are still some al Qaeda, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and unaffiliated Islamic terrorists in Algeria, but they are keeping quiet to avoid detection and capture. The only place where you will find active Algerian Islamic terrorists is Europe and a few other regions where Algerian radicals fled to since the 1990s. Algeria has been very hostile to Islamic terrorism in the 21st century and keeping it that way is one thing most Algerians can agree on. Those who don’t agree, while a small minority, are always there waiting for an opportunity to seize power, or make a credible, and bloody, attempts.

Most of the Islamic terrorist veterans of the 1990s Islamic terrorist uprising are now backing the army. These men accepted amnesty or just surrendered and were eventually freed. These former radical fighters believe they lost because most Algerians did not support them and enough were willing to fight for that belief to make the goal of an Islamic government impossible to achieve. As these for Islamic terrorists got older they become more aware of how poorly Islamic rule has worked in Iran and the few other places where it has been tried. The old Islamic terrorists are now conservative in their political views and prefer stability over everything else. The Islamic parties still advocate religious and social conservatism and advocate that by individually providing living examples of how that works. While they are respected, they are not widely emulated.

The Resistance To The Resistance

A growing number of former senior officials are being prosecuted for corruption and efforts are being made to find and confiscate much of the stolen money and other assets. Algerian prosecutors have contacted European counterparts who have a reputation for helping in such cases. Europe is a popular place for corrupt officials from everywhere to park their loot. For corrupt Algerians France, Switzerland and Spain were favorite places to launder and conceal what had been stolen. This totals billions of dollars’ worth of assets and Algerian prosecutors and investigators expect to get back some of that in the short term.

All these arrests and prosecutions of senior officials include many connected with the oil and gas industry, which accounts for the main Algerian export and the one that brings in most of the foreign exchange needed to pay for imports. Oil industry expansion plans are now on hold. Desperation had forced the corrupt oil industry bureaucrats to finally allow needed reforms to move forward. Lower oil and gas prices had become permanent and Algeria could no longer afford to be sloppy with oil industry upgrades so that some well-connected officials could get rich. Now all these needed reforms are on hold again as the corrupt deals are found, eliminated and efforts made to replace them.

The Tunisian Experience

There are so many wealthy and well-connected Algerians being prosecuted that some are going to have enough clout to escape punishment, or at least walk free after spending a lot of money and calling in lots of favors. To get a better idea of how this works opposition politicians are consulting their compatriots next door in Tunisia. That is where the Arab Spring uprising began in 2011 and Tunisia is the one place where the revolution was most successful. Not a complete success but enough of a good thing for Algerians to admire and aspire for.

Tunisians complain that while their current rulers are not as corrupt and oppressive as the ones overthrown in 2011, they are not a major improvement. The problem is that not enough changes have been made to get the economy going and bring down the unemployment rate, especially among young (under 30) Tunisians. The corrupt and undemocratic governments so common in Arab states seek to stifle innovation that would upset the current economic order. Dictators prefer social stability to entrepreneurs creating new enterprises that put long-established ones out of business. This weakens key government supporters and creates new, younger people who replace them. For an unelected government, this is seen as a threat, and it usually is. As the experience in Tunisia shows just getting elected and less corrupt officials do not upset long-standing economic traditions. Corruption isn’t the only obstacle to economic growth.

June 2, 2019: The Constitutional Council, which is in charge of organizing elections to replace recently (April 2nd) ousted president-for-life Bouteflika, announced that the planned July 4th presidential election would not take place because there were no suitable candidates. Only two candidates had stepped forward. Give how the deposed president had blocked serious candidates and political parties for decades it was not surprising that effective parties and candidates could be found in less than 90 days.

June 1, 2019: In the southeast near (Amenas near the Libyan border) army patrols continue to find hidden caches of weapons. Some of these caches are recent, and probably left by active smugglers, but most have been there for years and probably abandoned by Islamic terrorists or criminals who are now dead, in prison or have fled to the West or some other distant sanctuary from Algerian security forces.

May 31, 2019: In the far south (Tamanrasset province, 2,000 kilometers south of the capital), near the Niger border, the army reported that they have been using their locally made UAVs for surveillance and, in at one recent instance, to attack suspected Islamic terrorists. The Niger border and, or a lesser extent the Mali border, are still experiencing Islamic terrorist activity. In some cases, Islamic terrorists are entering Algeria but a lot of the activity is on the other side of the border and that occasionally spills across into Algeria.

 

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