Algeria: Political manoeuvring reduces influence of powerful intelligence agency

15 Sep 2015

Algeria: Political manoeuvring reduces influence o...

The arrest and dismissals of several senior security personnel since July are reshaping Algerian politics as uncertainty continues around the succession of aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The changes – most recently including the replacement of long-term intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene – have weakened of the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) and in turn reinforced the position of the People’s National Army (ANP) and the presidency at the heart of government. In line with the opaque nature of Algerian politics, the reason for the timing of these changes is unclear but provide important signals to the make-up of a post-Bouteflika regime, with a diminished role for the long-powerful DRS. They come amid continued Islamist unrest in parts of the country, worsening economic stability and continued questions over the health of the president and provide important signals to the make-up of a post-Bouteflika regime, with a diminished role for the long-powerful DRS.

The changes in key government personnel represent a concerted effort to weaken the authority of the powerful DRS. The arrest of the anti-terrorism chief, Abdelkader Ait-Ouarab, on 27 August and replacement of Mediene with former presidential security advisor General Athmane Tartag this week, follows the earlier dismissal of three senior DRS generals in July, including the head of presidential security and the director of internal security. These changes of personnel come alongside several major structural adjustments in Algeria’s security forces that have seemingly weakened the remit of the DRS. On 8 August, the DRS Special Intervention Group was dissolved and reports suggest the DRS also has lost its authority to carry out judicial investigations into corruption. The Deputy Defence Minister and Chief of Staff of the ANP, General Gaid Salah, took control of a surveillance agency the Department for the Control of Radio (DCRE) surveillance agency, from the DRS on 2 September.

The weakening of the once-pervasive DRS and General Mediene alters the decades-long power sharing alliance between the intelligence agency, the ANP and the presidency. The reduction of DRS power is indicative of cooperation between General Salah and the presidency amid concerns over the health of 78-year-old Bouteflika, who is serving his fourth term following elections in 2014 despite suffering a reported stroke in 2013. The close relationship between the presidency and the army, and the removal of any potential DRS opposition, make agreement on a mutually suitable successor more likely. 

Political manoeuvrings at the centre of Algerian politics are typically difficult to decipher, but several prominent figures have emerged as lead candidates to succeed the president. In the event of Bouteflika’s death in office, these figures will have 60 days to prepare for presidential elections while the Chairman of the Council of Nation, Abdelkader Bensalah, presides over an interim government. General Salah is often suggested as a possible contender for the presidency, but this is unlikely given the level of public and political opposition the ascendance of a military leader could encounter. There are suggestions Said Bouteflika, the president’s brother and advisor, would take the presidency on his brother’s death but he has faced both allegations of corruption and has limited support among politicians. Security sources have indicated the military is opposed to a hereditary transfer of power and would be unwilling to back Said.  

Abdelmalek Sellal, the serving prime minister, and Ahmed Ouyahiya, the chief of staff to the Presidency of the Republic and former prime minister, have been named as other potential frontrunners for succession. Some have said that the appointment of Ouyahiya as head of the second largest party, the National Democratic Rally (RND), on 10 June is indicative of steps towards a presidential candidacy. Ouyahia is considered politically competent, though a combination of a poor economic record and unpopularity over the closure of public services during his tenure as prime minister, may weaken his chances. Sellal is not much more popular and is regarded as a technocrat, but some within the political establishment view him as a populist. He does, however, have a political record untainted by corruption allegations and has in the past implemented a conciliatory approach to politics, creating an arbitration panel to mitigate intercommunal violence in Ghardaia in 2014. 

These major changes in Algerian politics come at a critical time for Algeria, which is facing both an ongoing Islamist insurgency in eastern areas and falling revenues from oil sales, which constitute 95 percent of export earnings and 60 percent of the national budget. The low price of oil and gas has weakened Algeria’s budget reserves and the draft law of the 2016 budget indicates a significant reduction in public investment and tax increases on fuel and imported goods. The potential for unrest amid government cutbacks could explain the timing of the current government changes. Algeria’s structural economic challenges will not significantly change in the next year and amid deteriorating health and declining public appearances, Bouteflika’s presidency could be threatened by any significant popular unrest. Although the recent developments make it likely Bouteflika will remain in office until his death, the changes suggest behind-the-scenes preparations are underway to try and mitigate a turbulent succession period. The short-term reaction of ousted DRS personnel and the wider public reaction to ongoing economic problems and high youth unemployment will also influence this transition process for the remainder of this year and next.   

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