A Critical Time for Algeria

By Emily Boulter

Over a two-month period Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika vanished from the country's political scene. He was reported to have suffered a mild stroke and travelled to France in order to receive medical care. His absence sparked rumors that the 76-year-old president had either passed way or was in a coma. There were widespread calls among opposition parties that Article 88 of the constitution should be invoked.

However on June 12, 2013 news footage appeared showing Bouteflika in the French hospital of Val-de-Grace discussing plans for the next cabinet meeting with Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah. On July 16, the president returned home to Algeria and it is reported that he will enjoy a "period of rest and recovery".

There is relief from many quarters that a power vacuum has been averted until next year's presidential elections in April. The consensus is that Bouteflika will not run for a fourth term, even though he introduced an amendment in 2008 removing limits on presidential terms. For the moment there are no likely successors, but possible candidates include Prime Minister Sellal, former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and even former President Liamine Zeroual. Next year's candidates will have to gain the backing of Algeria's military and intelligence elite le pouvoir and undoubtedly they will need the support of Mohamed "Tewfiq" Mediene, the director of Algeria's intelligence service the DRS. Mediene is considered to be one of the most powerful men in Algeria and it is often said that the DRS truly holds the reins of power in the country.

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This year Algeria has needed the aid of a decisive leadership, since it has been marred by a number of crises. On January 16, militants from the al-Qaeda splinter group Al Mulathameen or the Signed-In-Blood Battalion, led by the Algerian-born Mokhtar Belmokhtar attacked the remote gas plant of Tiguentourine near the municipality of In Amenas. The facility is a joint operation controlled by Algeria's national oil company Sonatrach, BP and Statoil. It produces two percent of Europe's gas imports. On the day of the attack, militants dressed in military uniforms singled out foreign nationals and some were forced to wear explosives around their necks. A day later, Algerian Special Forces, under the direction of the head of the Directorate for Internal Security, General Athman 'Bachir' Tartag, launched an offensive to remove the militants. At the end of a four-day siege, at least 38 workers and 29 militants had been killed. The incident raised major concerns regarding the safety of all foreign workers at the country's gas and oil facilities. Many foreign companies removed non-essential staff and many expressed anger at the ease with which militants were able to penetrate the "ring of steel" surrounding the site, which included a large number of Algerian security forces, armed with attack helicopters and Soviet-built T-72 tanks. In the aftermath, there were questions over whether or not projects would be put on hold. The Tiguentourine plant suffered damage to two of its gas purification plants and while there was a loss in production, Algeria's energy minister told the press that they would compensate by using other fields. Yet BP's chief executive Bob Dudley said that some projects would have to be pushed back, which forced Britain's ambassador to Algeria to offer reassurances that BP was committed to remain in the country. Norway's Statoil has said it will double its security staff in its international division. On July 7, Algeria was nevertheless given a boost with the announcement that it was signing an agreement on an energy partnership with the European Union. The head of the Commission Jose Manuel Barroso announced: "energy is a priority sector for the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, because it is vital in order to build a shared zone of prosperity and stability".

Algeria is facing a tide of problems from beyond its borders and given that 98 percent of Algeria's export earnings come from oil and gas, it is critical that Algeria's government works to eliminate the threat of similar attacks in the future. Due to France's intervention in northern Mali in January, there has been a considerable movement of militant activity towards southern Libya and also into the area of Jebel Chambi on the Algerian-Tunisian border. The Tunisian military has been working to crack down on al-Qaeda operatives in this region. Given the nature of this threat, both countries have formed a military-security liaison and coordination committee to share information on terrorist activities. Since May at least 6000 Algerian troops have been posted along the border with Tunisia. On June 10, Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said, "the borders with Tunisia and Libya are well secured, thanks to co-ordination with the two countries' governments". During this year's holy month of Ramadan, Algerian security forces have been on high alert due to fears of terrorist attacks. Security has been stepped up at mosques, public venues and at the country's beaches.

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Emily Boulter is a non-resident associate at INEGMA. Originally published by INEGMA.

(AP Photo)

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