Akgeria: Bouteflika seeks to outflank rival generals

Sept. 24, 2013 at 2:27 PM
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ALGIERS, Algeria, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Algeria's ailing head of state, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, had been widely expected to stand aside in presidential elections slated for April 2014 after ruling the oil and gas-rich North African country since 1991.

But instead, the 76-year-old Bouteflika, one of the few surviving veterans of Algeria's 1954-62 war of independence against France, has boldly sought to consolidate his power base in his running battle with the country's generals by purging the powerful intelligence services.

That's bound to trigger pushback by the shadowy security chiefs who're known across Algeria simply as Le Pouvoir, "The Power."

Bouteflika, whose third five-year term expires in April, carried out a major Cabinet reshuffle Sept. 11, putting close aides into key positions in advance of the Spring election, including the ministries of defense and interior which control security.

He also sidelined Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, a highly experienced political operator who had presidential ambitions of his own, and replaced him with longtime ally Abdelmalik Sellal, who ran two successful presidential campaigns for Bouteflika in 2004 and 2009.

But leaks in the Algeria media in recent days indicate that the changes the president has initiated in the command echelon are much more extensive than earlier believed, and are unambiguously directed at the intelligence services.

The restructuring of highly sensitive security ministries have not been officially confirmed or denied, which is not unusual in the opaque world of Algerian power politics.

But analysts say Bouteflika's moves are clearly intended to undermine the power of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Mediene, head of the Research and Security Department, or DRS, the most influential of the security services.

Bouteflika, and Mediene, a member of the minority and long downtrodden Berber community who's widely known by Algeria's 35 million people by his nom de guerre of "Tewfik," are old political rivals.

For the last few years, Mediene has spearheaded high-profile anti-corruption campaigns that have targeted Bouteflika's clan and political allies, particularly in the state oil and gas monopoly Sonatrach. That has reflected badly on the president.

And that seems to be a central issue in the moves by Bouteflika, supported by the army: undermining Mediene's hold on the intelligence and security services and stripping it of the authority to conduct what are widely seen as political purges masked as anti-corruption crusades.

Corruption is a political hot potato. Algeria's awash in oil and gas revenue, and has foreign reserves of almost $200 billion. There has long been a struggle for control of these riches.

Official graft "has reached grotesque proportions, but rather than being fought with the law, it is unfortunately used as a weapon by the different clans in the system fighting among themselves since the war of succession to Bouteflika has opened," observed Rachid Tlemcany, a professor of politics at Algiers University.

Oxford Analytica noted that Bouteflika's "attack on the DRS during the cabinet reshuffle in mid-September was designed to be seen as an attack on nepotism, corruption and abuse of power, supposedly weakening the position of ... Mediene."

But it questioned how far Bouteflika is prepared to go to dismantle the DRS and transfer some of its powers to a more compliant army command, "including its authority to run the current investigation into corruption at Sonatrach....

"It is not in Bouteflika's interests to weaken an organization which Algeria's internal and external security is so dependent," Oxford Analytica said.

Bouteflika's in poor health after an April stroke, and 80 days in a Paris hospital. Although he hasn't stood down, it's unlikely he'll run in 2014. He favors being succeeded by his younger brother Said.

That's opened up the succession as Algeria faces a growing security threat from al-Qaida as it spreads its tentacles across North Africa.

Algeria, the region's military heavyweight, crushed an Islamist uprising in 1991-2002 in which both sides fought with savage ferocity.

But it spawned the Algerian jihadist movement that now directs much of the terrorist activity in the region.

Unlike its North African neighbors Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco, Algeria has not had to face a pro-democracy uprising like those that toppled dictators across the region in an unprecedented eruption of Arab people power in 2011. Yet.

Algeria's leaders know there's growing resentment and impatience among their people who've seen few improvements in their lot, and a deep desire for change.

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