North Africa.. With President Abdelaziz Bouteflika increasingly ill, the signs of a quiet power struggle are showing. If the tension bursts, the devastation would be far worse than the Algerian war of the ‘90s or the Libyan conflict.

If Algeria explodes, we’re all in trouble

Who remembers Algeria? You know, that little country the size of Western Europe on the other side of the Mediterranean. Right in front of Sardinia. There is almost never any mention of Algeria except if a group of terrorists take hostages or behead a Westerner. The international media has always covered the North African country very little. Even the bloody civil war of the ‘90s that wiped out nearly 300,000 people was one of the least documented wars in modern history. Maybe because in Algeria nothing ever happens?

Not so. Algeria is a dynamic country where many things happen. There is civil society struggling to emerge from the terrible situation in which the country has been locked since the war. There are important social conflicts. Lately, there have even been clashes between ethnic populations: the Arabic-speaking Sunnis and the minority Berber-speaking Ibadis. So there’s ethnic and religious war, the favorite dish of global infotainment. Still nothing. Nobody thinks it’s important, and timid attempts by news agencies have ended up in the dustbin.

This silence is due to the fact that Algeria is a country little known abroad because it was closed for many years. And in some ways it still is. But it is also due to the fact that the Algerian regime is very rich and very skilled in the art of buying international consensus. Ten oil wells for the French, 20 for the Americans, a pipeline for the Italians, a little something to the Germans, a little something for Canadians and so on. If you know how to ingratiate multinationals everywhere, you become a country above all suspicion.

Like a mafia

The Algerian regime is very similar to mafia gangs. And you know that when the mob is going well, when the gangs have divided the territory in a balanced manner, there is no news. When the balance tilts and one side loses control, that’s when the shooting starts. Algeria is threatening very seriously to topple. It’s an interesting situation but one that is, alas, very dangerous and threatens to pull the country into a bloodbath.

As many know, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was re-elected, by votes or by design, for a fourth consecutive term and is seriously ill. Until his last re-election, despite the physical limitations, he continued to show signs of relative lucidity. But for some time he has disappeared completely from Algerian political life, except to appear on national television while accommodating some foreign delegation. But he never says anything publicly. Meanwhile, there are serious disruptions in Algerian institutions. And many people think that it can’t be him — he has always been cautious and diplomatic — who would cause such dangerous imbalances between the various powers.

The current affairs of the Algerian regime is a legacy of the war of the 1990s. In 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) triumphed in the first round of the first plural legislative elections of the young country’s history. In the second round, it took an absolute majority, and its activists heralded profound changes in the way of life for Algerians. But the army left the barracks, stopped the election process, forced the president and the incumbent government to resign and appointed a provisional government. That triggered a series of events that brought the country to a long and bloody war. In those years, the generals leading the coup (mostly deserters of the French army during the war of liberation) greatly strengthened their power, which until then had been offset by the ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN). They took hold of the economy, privatizing the state assets from the dead socialist system, and committed serious crimes, as well: abductions, summary executions, massacres, torture, manipulation, false attacks.

In 1998, the “international community” (read: the U.S.) imposed a negotiated peace and an exit plan from armed confrontation. This plan entailed a few points: market liberalization and opening of energy resources to multinationals, in exchange for amnesty for militants armed groups who agreed to lay down their arms. For their part, the monarchies of the Gulf would stop fanning the flames of Islamist guerrillas, and the West would not enabled international tribunals for crimes against humanity. On top of all this there was also a tacit economic agreement: that the new government would handle energy resources (oil and gas), gradually bringing them into the hands of multinationals, while the generals would have a monopoly on certain sectors in import and export, and the Islamists would have economic aid for launching domestic trade and small industry. To guarantee the promises of the United States and its Gulf allies, they installed a president who’d been politically sidelined for a decade: Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

That’s how our man was “elected” in 1999 and soon after convened a referendum for “civil accord,” which in exchange for peace gave immunity to all the criminals who bloodied the country. From there onward, he was not content to manage the balance inherited by secret agreements, but gradually consolidated much of power in his own hands — all without any frontal attack. Step by step, year after year, conquest after conquest.

Today those generals are almost all retired or dead. The power of the army was much reduced, and the strongest general at the moment is eating from the hand of President Bouteflika. And the FLN is under total control of the President’s Men. Something that has never happened in Algeria since independence: All power is concentrated in the hands of one person.

But this man who has so much power is sick, very sick. He’s been given up for dead several times and then miraculously recovered. He can’t walk. He can hardly move one hand or say a few words. The problem of those who live under his shadow is that among all the factions, Abdelaziz is the only one with the history and political experience, the national and international relations and the popular charisma necessary to stay in power. Around him is nothing. He’s kept in place in order to continue the work of systematically looting the resources of the country. They know that if the president collapses, everything collapses with him.

But in recent months, something has changed. The president is no longer seen in public, but it seems he has never been as active as now. In his name, the presidential clan is taking on the rival groups, mainly those of the generals. He’s put the last one still in power into retirement, the head of military intelligence, Gen. Mohammed Medienne, and even arrested some of his collaborators.

A time bomb

Within the FLN party, a structure full of great experience and competence, they put up a bunch of incompetent illiterates who throw mud on the entire political class. The only criterion that matters is absolute loyalty to the clan. Under these conditions, the institutions are completely paralyzed. The country is left to itself, and corruption has soared to levels never seen before. Popular discontent, though still silent, is skyrocketing. It’s a time bomb that could explode at any moment.

Amid the assault on the generals’ power, there was also the creation of a new intelligence service, called to replace the current secret services, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS). But despite attempts to dismantle it, the DRS remains very powerful and well placed. It has special units and thousands of military and civilian informants. It even has pseudo-Islamist armed groups still active in the mountains and in the desert, and has thousands of mercenaries ready to unleash hell on demand.

The question everyone is asking now is, “Who is pulling the strings?” A group of political figures, including some former ministers close to Bouteflika, were discarded after his illness. In a public letter, the former spokeswoman Khalida Messaoudi, the Trotskyist party General Secretary Louisa Hannoun, and the writer and internationally renowned intellectual Rachid Boudjedra called for a presidential hearing. They say they want to make there is really a president elected by the people behind the policies that are leading the country to collapse.

The results of this letter will never be disclosed officially. The only sign of life given by the Presidency of the Republic this week was the promulgation of a new plan to safeguard the office, the presidential residences and surrounding areas, including their airspace. There is fear of a coup. Will it be a white coup like the one made by Ben Ali in Tunisia many years ago? Will there be riots in the streets? Or perhaps the faction in power in Algeria will find a way to make ends meet in secret circles without making too many waves.

Or maybe not. And if not, catastrophe is just around the corner.

If that happens, the country is in trouble. Algeria is not Libya: We’re talking about the largest country in Africa and the most advanced after South Africa. If its arsenals end up in the wrong hands, it will upset the whole region. And that region includes southern Europe.