The military establishment of the oil-rich North African nation of Algeria emerged with its influence intact on Monday night, sacrificing the ailing 82-year-old president to quell weeks of street protests.
The wheelchair-bound Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has not addressed the 42-million strong public in five years, will not run for a fifth term in office, an official statement proclaimed.
In coordination with the orchestrated bow, the Algerian prime minister resigned and Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui was named in his place – a regime stalwart tasked with forming a new cabinet to oversee a managed transition.
Elections scheduled for April 18 have been postponed indefinitely, during which time the military is expected to ordain a candidate of its choice.
“It was purely a political intervention. The military knows a change will happen, but under their control. Like Egypt,” an industry source in Algeria told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.
The country will soon vote on a constitutional referendum, expected to usher in a more technocratic form of government. What will not be disturbed are the nerve centers of power in Algeria: the military, state oil giant Sonatrach, and the entrenched political elites.
The holy trinity
Algeria, with Morocco to the west and Tunisia and Libya to the east, was a creaking giant during the 2011 uprisings that swept much of the Arab world. A string of self-immolations in protest of poor services did not trigger the mass protests seen in Egypt, and the country’s shadowy power structures kept a lid on public protests.
As revolutionary currents from Libya to Syria spiraled into civil wars, with swathes of territory becoming hotbeds for jihadist groups, Algeria was, for example, content to maintain links to the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, having rejected its suspension from the Arab League since the start of a bloody crackdown in 2011.
The political elites that ruled behind the bedridden Bouteflika are now working to placate the reasonable demand of the street and professional classes for a capable leader to steer the country.
Oil and gas are the drivers of the economy in Algeria, the largest member of OPEC in terms of territory. Petroleum accounts for an overwhelming 85% of the country’s exports.
When it comes to the military apparatus, Algeria is the world’s fifth-largest importer of arms, according to the Sweden-based arms research institute SIPRI, just behind Egypt and Australia, and ahead of China and the United Arab Emirates.
The military and the state oil giant are the gateways to political influence.
“The political authorities, the military and Sonatrach are connected to each other through budgeting and power,” the industry source said.
The classic path to power in Algeria begins in the military. “If he has a minimum technical background, then he switches to Sonatrach. If he gets into a high position, then he becomes a politician.”
The new president is expected to be approved by these poles.
“Unless a third party comes in, it is not going to be a violent transaction,” the source said, referring to a push by an organized Islamist movement.
No European migration
The response to the protesters was nudged from afar. Weeks of massive protests gripping the Algerian capital did not go unnoticed by Algeria’s former colonial ruler.
Paris and other European capitals have in recent years struck deals with authorities across North Africa in order to prevent new waves of migrants arriving via the Mediterranean. A destabilized Algeria, seven times the size of Libya in terms of population, would have presented a major security debacle at home and overseas.
Algerian authorities had first tried to quell the unrest by presenting worst-case-scenarios, with Bouteflika warning on Thursday that the country could descend into the chaos faced by its neighbors.
Protesters, cognizant of the stakes, maintained a peaceful movement, their cause shored up by the participation of a cross-section of society – from students to lawyers to businessmen – publicly distancing themselves from the octogenarian authority.
In the end, Bouteflika served as a pressure valve for the frustrations of the public, much as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did in 2011.
Protesters celebrated their victory Monday night as the news was announced that Bouteflika would not seek a new term.
The street movement remains leaderless, however, and opposition parties have not coalesced around a candidate, leaving the path clear for Algeria’s powers that be to ordain a chosen heir.