Algeria’s army chief, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, is playing two roles — still one less than Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove — namely, good cop and bad cop. It may be working. The living — or dying — representative figure of the system which Salah says he is striving to save from chaos, namely four-term president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, finally agreed with the general that he resign. Barring another coup de théâtre, he will be gone by 28 April.
In his good cop role, the aging soldier — going on 80 — takes an avuncular air and congratulates the people who have been demonstrating every Friday since February 22 in Algiers and other cities and towns. He adds, with just a touch of condescension, that he admires the demonstrators’ peaceful behavior, their dignity, their maturity.
When their maturity does not extend to adulation of the career soldier who joined the anti-colonial army as a teenager in the 1950s, he can play the bad cop. He does not appreciate the suggestion everyone connected to the regime, of which he is a pillar, clear out.
He chose a military garrison in Ouargla, deep in the Sahara, to suggest the president be forced to resign on grounds of illness, using the Article 102 procedure, the equivalent of our 25th Amendment.
But as to regime change, he stated, at military headquarters in Algiers, surrounded by top brass, that the army would not neglect its duty as the ultimate bulwark against all enemies, foreign and domestic. He invoked Articles 7 and 8, which state that all authority derives from the sovereign people. The army, in Algeria, is called the National People’s Army.
He also mentioned plots, warned he knew who the plotters are. Rumors spread immediately about some of his rivals, notably another general, Mohamed Mediène, former security chief, forced into retirement a few years ago when Salah was still the president’s loyal supporter.
This does not mean there was a plot, only that Salah and his agents are playing hardball and are not averse to psy-ops. Mediène, for his part, formally denounced the slander. Some years ago he warned his American homologue that our territory was vulnerable to attack. He was listened to, with some disbelief reportedly; with his reputation as a hard-liner in the war against radical Islamists, he may have been judged overly alarmist. He was meeting with high officials at the Pentagon when the attack came.
What seems, from afar, like another example of African theater of the absurd with a cast out of a novel by Eric Ambler can turn into a Shakespearean tragedy with fearsome consequences for the strategically located North African country of some 40 million. Rich in human resources and a major supplier of petroleum and natural gas, Algeria’s political history has been a dismal record of chances lost to tyranny. When elephants stampede, the grass suffers, goes the proverb. There are no elephants in Algeria, but the proverb is apt.
Plot, shplot, but it is evident the “Bouteflika clan,” which has been in power since 1999, may follow its chief out the door.
One of the president’s top cronies, a business macher named Ali Haddad, was stopped at the Tunisia border and placed under arrest, the other day. Why was he leaving by car, with only his driver and wearing a cap pulled low over his brow?
The inside men of the regime are widely rumored to have stolen large bales of kale in all manners of schemes that depend on government contracts, licenses, or connections. None of this corruption has been demonstrated in courts; but when cronies extraordinaire start making runs for the exits, you suspect a shoe — another one? — is about to drop. The atmosphere can get hairy in a cliquish, clannish, closed system, one in which the population is very young and largely unemployed and without prospects.
Meanwhile, the street — well, the street responded to the general’s Article 102 suggestion with a new slogan on the banners carried in demos: “Article Sans Deux,” using French puns to say out with the both of them (Gaid Salah was promoted by Bouteflika in healthier years); or more broadly, “Sans Eux,” out with the all of them, in effect anticipating the government shuffle.
The people, yes. It is flattering to see that democracy is America’s great gift to the world. Funny, though, how the world always forgets the Founders’ prudent corollaries: checks and balances, rule of law, civilian control of the military. Observe in passing that the direct election of senators (and the permanent federal income tax) put us on the path to demagogic, rather than constitutional, democracy. The abolition of the electoral college is a menace as subversive of our freedom as judicial activism and D.C. statehood, but I digress.
History does not, materially, repeat itself, but there are repetitive patterns in all nations. Algeria experienced a liberal opening in the late 1980s, when it was said the post-colonial generation had run its course and it was time to turn away from authoritarian, single-party rule. Things did not go well and the country was tortured through a savage decade. The memory of the war between the security forces and associated militias on one side and Islamist insurgents on the other is often mentioned to explain why the current upheaval has not slid already into violent confrontations.
There was also the brutal repression of initiatives to restore local government in the Kabylia region in the early ’00s, and a heavy-handed clamp down on a brief flurry of protest at the time of the 2011 Arab Springs.
There are today many Algerians who rue the “Arabization” of the national movement. After the war with France, almost all the Jews and Europeans departed, even though they had no other homeland and the Jews had been there before the Arab conquest. Algerians will tell you losing the Jews and the pieds-noirs (European settlers) was a disaster. This does not prevent them, often the very same, from being reflexively anti-Israel and in effect anti-Semitic, but go figure. Others view Israel as one national liberation movement that actually did what it said it would do; Ireland being the other. But I digress again.
Though the ruling group gives the impression of being in sauve-qui-peut (i.e. panic) mode, Algeria is always more enigmatic than it seems. Bringing down the system as it has stood, with some shakeups, since independence, would be satisfying in the short term; but as to the long term, it is not clear the regime’s detractors can agree on what should follow.
Many leading Berberists are partial to devolution of governance, within a strictly respected constitutional framework. But the pride in their country of Algerian patriots remains passionate despite all the felt betrayals, and no one knows how much support a federal solution would gather.
The U.S. position, expressed by State Department spokesman Robert Palladino, is that the Algerians will do what they must; or must do what they will:
We, the United States, respect the rights of the Algerian people to assemble and to peacefully express their views about fulfilling their political and economic aspirations. And I’d say that this transition period that’s undergoing, that’s something for the Algerian people to answer the question of how to accomplish that. But we respect the rights of the Algerians to peacefully express their views, we’ll continue to do so, and we would also commend the Algerian Government’s commitment to ensure the safety of all demonstrators.
You could scarcely be more clear.