There are those who argue that Egypt’s infamous dictator Hosni Mubarak sealed
his own fate long before the first activists pitched their tents in Tahrir
Square in January 2011. They say the countdown really began in 2010, when
Mubarak’s eldest son Gamal pitched a bold economic reform package to weather
Egypt through the global economic recession.
At the time, Gamal was known
to be next in line to succeed his father. The plan would have essentially taken
the regime’s massive economic holdings out of the hands of the military-backed
older generation and put it into the hands of Gamal’s loyal young business class
within the ruling NDP party. After the Arab Spring engulfed the country, the
Egyptian military unsurprisingly had little motivation to save the embattled
Mubarak family, instead organizing his dismissal and eventually enabling the
trial of Hosni and his two sons on corruption charges.
comparisons between Egypt and Algeria have since been made in the global
Most have focused on their respective battles with
political Islam, but few have given credit Algeria’s aging authoritarian
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for recognizing Mubarak’s mistakes and keeping
his regime afloat amid the storm of regional political upheaval.
than four months ago, 76-year-old Bouteflika was fighting for his life in a
Parisian hospital after suffering a debilitating stroke, while his political
career was pronounced dead by most Algerians. Not one to forgive, Bouteflika has
wasted no time in identifying and sidelining anyone who prematurely plotted to
fill his shoes during his absence. In September, he implemented Algeria’s
largest cabinet reshuffle since 1990, replacing the interior, foreign and
justice ministers with his close allies.
Bouteflika appointed the
previous foreign minister, Mourad Medelci, to president of the Constitutional
Council. The Council, the Interior Ministry and and Justice Ministry comprise
the three bodies which will oversee the country’s first post-Arab Spring
presidential elections in April 2014.
Bouteflika’s stroke has made it
practically impossible for him to legitimize running for an unprecedented fourth
term in office, but reports indicate that he has been grooming his younger
brother Said for the job.
Said Bouteflika has also been the driving force
behind the recent political strong-arming, which has not only sought to
influence control over upcoming polls, but diminish the influence of the
Bouteflika clan’s most powerful rivals in Algerian politics, the powerful
military intelligence service, the DRS.
In recent years, the power
struggle between Bouteflika and the DRS’s secretive commander, General Mohammed
“Toufik” Mediene has intensified. Since taking command of the newly-created DRS
in 1990, the KGB-trained Mediene has become widely known as the heart of “Le
Pouvier” (the power) in the country.
Mediene is reportedly spearheading
recent corruption charges against former energy minister Chekib Khelil and eight
other officials who are known Bouteflika allies, causing extreme embarrassment
for the administration during a period of rising economic discontent,
particularly regarding mismanagement of the country’s crucial oil sector. On
August 10, international arrest warrants were filed for the accused for awarding
contracts between the state oil company Sonatrach and European firms in exchange
Bouteflika has used the recent cabinet reshuffle to fire
back at Mediene, placing his DRS under the supervision of the new deputy defense
minister, the army’s current Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah. Salah is, you
guessed it, a close ally of Bouteflika, ever since he was appointed by the
president to chief of staff in 2004.
The proverbial ball is now in
Mediene’s court and if history is any indicator, he will not likely allow
Bouteflika to transfer power to his brother Said without a fight. Bouteflika has
reportedly attempted to replace Mediene himself twice. In one instance, the
candidate was mysteriously killed in a car accident, and the other was
publically shamed by a barrage of publicized corruption scandals.
longest-serving internal intelligence chief of any modern nation, Mediene is
privy to all of the skeletons in Bouteflika’s closets. In some cases quite
literally, as his DRS has been tasked with the regime’s dirty work since the
1992 military coup.
In addition, Mediene has been known to work with
pretty much anyone or do anything to achieve his goals. Legend has it that
during the 1992-1998 civil war, Mediene ordered DRS agents to stage bombing
attacks under the guise of Islamic radicals in order to curb their support,
while Mediene himself has been known to personally torture and threaten
In an age of social media, Internet and emboldened activism,
however, the showdown between Algeria’s top power brokers isn’t going to be a
clean fight. Algerian media is becoming ever more willing to name and shame
government officials for corruption, fueling the general population’s already
dismal approval ratings of the country’s leadership. Until now, it has been
widely assumed that the memories of Algeria’s brutal civil war, which followed
the coup of 1992, are keeping the country’s labor unions, civil activists and
Islamist opposition groups from banding together and rising up against the
Much like in Mubarak’s Egypt, a dynastic transfer of power from
Bouteflika to his brother isn’t going to be received positively by anyone,
regardless of whether Said puts his own name on the ballot or fields a close
ally to hold the fort until the next round. Bouteflika can only bank on the
Algerian people’s fear of political instability, a fear undoubtedly exacerbated
by the turmoil engulfing newly-revolutionized states across the Arab
Until now, Bouteflika has successfully outmaneuvered his political
rivals and even his own ailing health, but at a severe cost to his regime’s
image among the general population. If 2014 elections are to run smoothly and
North Africa’s last dictatorship is to be preserved, Bouteflika and his allies
will need to tread carefully.
The author is the Middle East and North
Africa intelligence manager at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical and
security risk consulting firm.