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Occupied Arab World

Bouteflika, in humiliating u-turn, forced to acknowledge power of the military

Crescent International

When Algerian press-reports in mid-October alleged that president Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika’s failure to appoint a cabinet since his inauguration in April was because of interference from Algeria’s generals, he was indignant. He was his own man and would rather resign than allow the country’s ‘vested interests’ to force him to serve as a ‘three-quarters president’, he said. Only days later, however, he acknowledged the role of the military in the country’s ‘united’ leadership, and praised the generals for respecting the constitution. He had no problem working with the army, he said, and would complete the rest of the term in office.

Bouteflika’s humiliating retreat came in a keenly-awaited speech on October 20, the beginning of the new Algerian judicial year. In the speech, Bouteflika (who had served as foreign minister during the military dictatorship of Houari Boumedienne in the 1970s and 1980s) sought to answer the questions raised by the press reports a few days earlier.

The questions were all the more urgent and relevant because the confrontation between the generals and the president was unfolding against news of the military coup in Pakistan, another Muslim country where the military are the ultimate rulers, which was attracting unprecedented attention in Algeria. Partly for this reason, many people who would have otherwise stayed out of the debate urged Bouteflika to stand up to the generals ï only to be bitterly disappointed.

The the president wasted a golden opportunity to pull rank on the generals and to clarify who really rules the land; instead, he sided with them. “The leadership of the country (including the military) are coherent and united ïeach doing the duty assigned to him, and none being able to pull tricks except constitutional ones on the others,” he declared in his speech. This ensured that there was “no problem whatsoever between the military establishment and the other organs of the state,” he added.

The controversy had arisen after the Algerian newsagency published the full text of a Reuters report alleging that ‘the generals’ had blocked the appointment of retired generals to Bouteflika’s cabinet and that they in fact had power of veto over the president’s appointments.

The publication of the report violated a taboo in Algerian politics against the mention of the ‘generals’ as political bosses, and led to intense public discussion and speculation as to the reasons for the report being published. Clearly, the powers-that-be had no interest in raising the matter, but the cat was out of the bag, and fact and fiction were mixed in the ensuing media discussion and speculation.

The Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat, citing ‘well-informed sources’, reported on October 16 that two powerful generals, chief of staff Muhammad La’marry and head of intelligence Muhammad Moudin, nicknamed ‘Tawfiq’, had personally told Bouteflika that they opposed the appointment of retired army officers to high office.

Bouteflika had wanted to appoint retired general Araby Belkair, who had been instrumental in securing the army’s support for his candidacy and election as president last April, to a senior post. Another retired general whom Bouteflika had reportedly wanted to appoint to high office is Muhammad Atayilliyah, who had also helped him to become president.

These appointments would have been on top of the military officers already in senior posts under Bouteflika, including colonel Muhammad Yazid Zarhouni (former deputy chief of intelligence), general Salim Abu-Abdullah (now serving at the presidency) and general Rachid Issat. Algerians interpreted the latest revelations as cronyism and an unhealthy reliance on former military officers deeply involved in the country’s past corruption and suppression. Bouteflika was widely seen as preferring to depend on the military to exercise symbolic power than to defy them and risk losing all.

The implications of this for the country’s ideological and political development is serious. The military is vehemently opposed to any role in the affairs of the country for the Islamic movement, and Bouteflika’s so-called reconciliation initiative aimed at ending the civil war can only be on the generals’ terms.

Equally disturbing, the continued triumph of the military in the political arena means that Algerian foreign and economic policies will continue to be determined by the military establishment, which traditionally kowtows to foreign masters ï France in the past, and now increasingly the US. Both countries, who are competing for control of the country’s rich gas and oil resources are supporting Bouteflika, on the notably undemocratic grounds that he enjoys the backing of the generals.

Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 17

Rajab 22, 14201999-11-01

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