Algeria is bordered to the northeast by Tunisia, to the east by Libya, to the southeast by Niger, to the southwest by Mali and Mauritania, to the west by Morocco and to the north by the Mediterranean Sea. The National Liberation Front (Le Front de libération nationale) has dominated politics ever since Algeria won independence from France in 1962. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced out of office on 2 April 2019 after 20 years in power, and Abdelkader Bensalah was named interim president on the same day. Elections were scheduled for July 2019 but were later postponed because of protests by supporters of the Hirak movement who were disillusioned with the political system and by Algeria’s weak economy and high unemployment, as well as the announcement by President Bouteflika from his Geneva hospital bed that he would seek another five-year term in the 2019 presidential election.
December 2019 Presidential Election
Abdelmadjid Tebboune won a five-year term as president in the election on 12 December 2019. Although he ran for the presidency on an independent ticket, he is an old school regime insider, a loyalist of ousted leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika. As soon as Tebboune’s victory was announced, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Algerian towns in protest. They chanted slogans against Tebboune, who they saw as a continuation of the previous regime, and demanded that the whole political establishment be swept away. Their placards read: ‘your elections are of no concern to us’, ‘We did not vote you president’ and ‘You will not govern us’.
Tebboune acted quickly to consolidate his power base and ignore the demands of the Hirak movement protesters. Three factors helped him greatly: (1) the sudden death of powerful army chief and Vice-Minister of Defence General Ahmed Gaid Salah, which allowed him to appoint an unambitious army officer who Tebboune trusts; and (2) the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced all popular protesters who considered the result of his election illegitimate to self-isolate; and (3) action taken by army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah before his death against ministers and the close associate and brother of former president Bouteflika, who were charged with corruption and are now serving long prison terms.
On 23 December 2019, Tebboune abolished the office of Vice-Minister of Defence and appointed Major General Said Chengriha as interim chief of staff, then chief of staff on 3 July 2020.1
According to the Algerian constitution, the president is the minister of defence and the supreme commander of the armed forces. But in practice, decisions are made by army command and the military intelligence, the backbone of the political system, and it is unlikely that the president will succeed in reducing their power in political decision-making in Algeria. Indeed, on 16 October 2020 Jeune Afrique reported that President Tebboune and General Chengriha disagree on foreign policy, the text in the new constitution relating to the armed forces deployed outside Algeria, and the president’s interference with the generals’ running of his department and the nomination of officers and personnel in different departments of the Ministry of Defence. He was particularly annoyed when the president forced Major General Abdelaziz Medjahed, a close colleague of Chengriha, to retire from his job as security adviser to the Minister of Defence. Said Chengriha’s aim, like that of Gaid Salah before him, is to restore the army’s former role as a political arbitrator. According to many commentators on Algerian politics, President Tebboune will not allow general Chengriha to became a powerful officer like Gaid Salah, so it is only a matter of time before he is replaced.
The president continued his purge. In April 2020 he fired Brigadier General Wassini Bouazza, the head of internal security and intelligence for committing ‘serious violations’ during his eight-month tenure, put him under house arrest and then replaced him with Brigadier Abdelghani Rashidi. On 17 April he dismissed Colonel Kamel-Eddine Remili, chief of the external security directorate, and replaced him with Major General Mohamed Bouzit. Tebboune also dismissed civil servants he did not trust.
This sort of action is quite common in Algerian politics. Every president appoints people who will protect him and implement his policies without challenge.
Referendum on new constitution
President Tebboune proposed amendments to the Algerian constitution and announced that there would be a referendum to approve them. He set the referendum date for 1 November 2020. This date marks the start of Algeria’s war of independence against France, and was chosen for its symbolism. According to the Algerian veteran lawyer and human rights activist Mustapha Bouchachi, however, the new draft constitution would present the country with an autocratic regime and turn the post of president into something like that of an emperor. The president would have the power to control the work of the legislature, and to appoint the governor of the central bank, the chief judge of the constitutional court and four of the tribunal’s 12 members, as well as officers of the armed forces.
The election body declared on 2 November that there had been a 23 per cent turnout for the referendum the day before, and the majority vote was in favour of the new constitution. The turnout was the lowest at an election since Algeria attained its independence. This indicated lukewarm support for a referendum that Hirak had decried as a sham which was intended to quash their movement for good. They said the reason Algerians did not bother to go and vote is that the regime had come up with identical promises to those made by former presidents: Chadli Bendjedid 1979–1992 and Abdelaziz Bouteflika 1999–2019 – promises that remain unfulfilled.
Independent media, such as Elwatan newspaper, which campaigned against the referendum lost government advertising support. The previous regime had used the same procedure to intimate independent media. Journalists who reported on the Hirak protests for the foreign media were arrested and imprisoned. A prominent journalist, Khaled Drareni, was arrested on 7 March 2020 while covering Hirak protests, and charged with ‘incitement to unarmed gathering, harming the integrity of national territory and with spying for France’ and sentenced to three years in prison. This was reduced to two years on appeal on 15 September 2020. Other foreign media such as Jeune Afrique were simply banned from entering the country, without any explanation.
To complicate matters, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who is 74 and a heavy smoker, caught COVID-19, according to his office press release of 22 October, after coming into contact with staff who tested positive for coronavirus. The president went into self-isolation. On the advice of his doctors he was admitted to the Algerian military hospital on 23 October and on 28 October he was transferred by French medical air ambulance to University Hospital in Cologne, Germany for treatment. The Algerian president’s actual state of health is shrouded in total secrecy and the Algerian media are forbidden to report on it. There have even been rumours that he has died. Without a full medical update or images showing Tebboune at German hospital, public opinion is left to make sense of the little communication his office can release to the public. A press release of 15 November 2020 said that the president is recovering well but gave no mention as to when he would return home. According to presidential prerogative, all important state issues relating to national security, state budget and foreign affairs must wait for his return.
Abdelmadjid Tebboune was born on 17 November 1945 at Mecheria in the Atlas Mountains, in Algeria’s northwest. He graduated from the National School of Administration in 1965 after studying economic and finance. After graduation, he got his first job as an administrative clerk in the region of Saoura, southwestern Algeria, then became secretary general of Djefa province (1975–1976) Adrar (1977–1979) Blida (1979–1982) and M’Sila (1982–1983).
In 1983 Tebboune was appointed governor of Adrar Province; the following year he became governor of Tiaret (1984–1989) and then Tizi Ouzou (1989–1991).
Throughout his time, he was devoted to the regime and the ruling party, Le Front de libération nationale and the old Third World and Non-Aligned Movement ideology which is now completely obsolete. It is clear in his recent speeches that this will continue to shape his domestic and foreign policy during his presidency.
Since 1991 Tebboune has held the following government positions:
- Minister delegate for local government June 1991–February 1992 under Chadli Benjedid’s presidency.
Under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika:
- Minister of communication and culture, December 1999–June 2000
- Minister delegate for local government, June 2000–May 2001
- Minister of housing and urban planning, September 2012–May 2017
- Minister of commerce, January 2017–May 2017
- Prime minister May 2017–August 2017
Tebboune’s First Government:
On 2 January 2020 President Abdelmadjid Tebboune appointed the members of his first government, led by Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad. The new government is made up of 39 members, including seven deputy ministers and four secretaries of state. Presidential advisers are:
Mohand Oussaïd Belaïd: presidential adviser and spokesman; he has been one of the president’s right-hand men ever since he came to power. This journalist by trade is in charge of the president’s communications. Belaïd, who previously served as ambassador to Bahrain, is close to former Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, who Tebboune visited shortly after being elected president.
He founded the Freedom and Justice Party (PLJ). He was planning to run for president in 2009, but his political party was not yet authorised at the time. Therefore he was not qualified.
That same year, he was appointed as communications minister in Abdelmalek Sellal’s government. Belaïd stayed in the post for just a year but it gave him the opportunity to expand his network of contacts with the press, a milieu in which he is deeply embedded.
Kamel Sidi Said: Another loyalist among loyalists, Said heads the Directorate of Communications and Documentation. Active in the media world, where he has many friends, he worked for a long time as a communications consultant for the privately owned company Cevital (agri-food industry) and was also a member of the think tank CARE. At the presidential office, he remains in permanent contact with the head of state.
Abdelaziz Medjahed: Appointed in February 2020 as security and military affairs adviser, this major-general acts as the interface between the president’s office and the military establishment. His friendship with Army chief of staff Said Chengriha, who served under his command, allows him to facilitate relations between the president and the Ministry of Defence headquarters.
Former director of Cherchell Military Academy, he led several army institutions (army general staff and military health services) prior to retiring in 2003 following a disagreement with chief of staff the late General Ahmed Gaid Salah.
Medjahed’s first-hand experience with terrorism, which he fought against in the 1990s alongside Chengriha, is recognised by experts and the media. He was appointed on 17 September 2020 as managing director of Algeria’s National Institute of Strategic Global Studies (NISGS).
Boualem Boualem: In his capacity as legal and judicial affairs adviser, this former judge is consulted on every appointment decided by the president. ‘Security clearance investigations’, which had in the past been assigned to various security agencies, were done away with during Bouteflika’s presidency.
A man of few words and highly discreet, Boualem headed Algeria’s National Agency for Combating Information and Communications Technology Offences. In charge of wiretapping, the institution became part of the Ministry of Defence in 2019.
Boualem’s job under the president is all the more crucial since many former ministers, officers and businessmen are involved in legal proceedings as part of alleged corruption.
Mohamed Lagab: An old acquaintance of Tebboune, this university professor is one of just a few people who did not turn his back on him after he was sacked from his prime minister post in 2017. As soon as Tebboune announced his 2019 presidential bid, he joined his team and became a manager of his campaign.
Abdelhafid Allahoum: Allahoum is another loyal ally who did not abandon Tebboune when he fell out of favour. Serving as an MP from 1982 to 1987, this former tax collector was a member of Tebboune’s campaign staff and was eventually appointed last December as a presidential adviser.
Equal parts discreet and influential, he is responsible for managing societal and community issues. He was recently tasked with settling a thorny matter regarding retired army personnel who regularly protest to demand disability benefits for their service record in the war on terrorism.
Mohamed El Amine Messaid: Tebboune’s former chief of staff when Tebboune was Minister Of Housing and Urban Development, appointed secretary general of the presidency on 21 December 2019.
Noureddine Baghdad Daidj: A former Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ambassador to various countries in Africa and Europe, appointed Direct of Cabinet of the presidency of the Republic on 3 March 2020.
Mohamed Chafik Mesbah: A retired intelligence officer and colonel, Mesbah was appointed in April 2020 as head of the Algerian Agency for International Cooperation for Solidarity and Development. He possesses a solid network in the civilian and military area, and has the rank of minister-counsellor to the president. The new agency, which operates as a sort of super-ministry, was created to mitigate Algeria’s declining influence in its vital African region and beyond.
Achievements since January 2020
Tebboune’s main priority was to get the new constitution approved by referendum, as explained above.
Abdelmadjid Tebboune is the first Algerian president who was not previously a member of the armed forces. He was 15 years old when Algeria’s independence war against France began. Throughout his time in office up to becoming president he was devoted to the regime and the ruling party, Le Front de libération nationale, and the old Third World and Non-Aligned Movement ideology which is now completely obsolete. It is clear in his recent speeches that this will continue to shape his domestic and foreign policy during his presidency.
Algeria and the Western Sahara
In his first speech, Tebboune promised that ‘they will see from us only good things and good intentions. They will see no harm and no trouble from our side.’ He repeated Algiers’ policy towards the Western Sahara conflict, which he described as an issue of ‘decolonisation’. The Western Sahara issue is the root of a decades-old rift between Morocco and Algeria starting when Algeria founded the Polisario movement in 1973. The movement, which is based in Tindouf, Algeria, has receives financial, diplomatic and military support from Algeria since its foundation and cannot exist without it. All experts agree that Polisario has no other resources to buy arms, or pay for its armed forces and the organisation of the movement. After independence, Algeria hosted many freedom fighters, revolutionaries, terrorists, and even the US Black Panther Party, until the 1990s. The Polisario movement is Algeria’s last remaining guest.
Algeria’s ‘Polisario first’ policy is damaging the Maghreb Arab Union, founded on 17 February 1989 as an economic and political union of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. Formation of the union was a key opportunity to address the security and economic challenges of the region, but progress will remain stagnant for the region as long as the Western Sahara problem remains unresolved. The conflict has caused the closure of the border between Algeria and Morocco since 1994 and stopped almost all trade between the two countries.
In Morocco, Western Sahara is an issue of national pride and concern and there is a determination not to give up an inch of its Sahara. Morocco knows that Algeria has invested a great deal, financially, ideologically and militarily in the issue, and sees Western Sahara as an important strategic area for Algeria’s wider regional influence.
Morocco proposed a solution granting autonomy to the indigenous Sahrawis, originally from the Western Sahara territory, under Moroccan sovereignty, conceding defence and foreign policy to Morocco, under the Moroccan national flag and currency with the king as head of state and commander of the faithful. Algeria and the Polisario movement insist on a referendum on independence for Polisario. However, there are two main barriers to holding a referendum:
- Both Algeria and Polisario have opposed any census of the population in the Tindouf camps, despite repeated requests from the UN Refugee Agency since 1977. Polisario has reported a population of 155,000 refugees in the area but there is no independent verification.
- Referendum is no longer mentioned in the recent UN Resolutions on Western Sahara and is no longer considered by the international community to be an option. Therefore, the autonomy solution proposed by Morocco is the best way to solve this conflict deadlock. Morocco has made clear that it will not accept any negotiation with Polisario unless Algeria is included as a party. In the past, Algeria attended the negotiations as an observer and adviser to Polisario negotiators.
Although Algerian politicians and army officers do not say it publicly, they do not support their government’s policy and Polisario. However, Amar Saadani, former MP and Speaker of the Algerian Parliament from 2004 to 2007 and Secretary General of Algeria’s ruling party the National Liberation Front from September 2013 to 22 October 2016 broke ranks with the Algerian government’s policy and said in an interview with the TSA Algerian news website Tout sur L’Algérie on 24 March 2019: ‘The Sahara is Moroccan and this issue must end, while Algeria and Morocco must open their borders and normalise their relations.’ Saadani continued: ‘To be honest, I consider, from a historical point of view, that the Sahara is Moroccan and nothing else. It was snatched from Morocco at the Berlin Congress. … Also, I think that for fifty years Algeria has poured huge sums into what is called the Polisario and this organisation did nothing and failed to break the impasse.’
Saadani’s interview was also aired by the Algerian Television Ennahar and other Middle Eastern media. The interview shocked the Algerian regime. The Algerian intelligence services and Polisario supporters accused Saadani of being a Moroccan agent.2
On Libya: Tebboune said on 19 December 2019: ‘Algeria will make more effort to achieve stability in Libya and safeguard the unity of its people and its territory’, and ‘Algeria is the first and foremost country concerned by Libya’s stability, whether one likes it or not. Algeria will never accept being excluded from the proposed solutions to the Libyan crisis.’
His comments coincided with a German-initiated move towards an international conference on Libya to which Algeria was not invited. The Algerian Foreign Minister was annoyed when Algeria was not invited to Libyan peace talks in Morocco, Geneva and Tunisia in October and November 2020. He was also annoyed by the United Nations rejection on 16 April 2020 of former Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra’s nomination as the UN envoy to Libya. Algeria blamed Morocco and the United States for this rejection.
On terrorism: Algeria has suffered from Islamist terrorism since the 1990s. On 13 January 2013 terrorists staged an attack at the gas refinery in Amenas, southeastern Algeria. Although there have been few attacks recently Islamic State terrorists control the southern fringe of the Sahara, particularly smuggling routes since the Libyan civil war.
Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso have almost been overrun by al-Qaida-affiliated groups many times in recent years. Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso are spending 18–32 per cent of their budgets on fighting terrorism.
Tebboune has said that Algeria’s hands will remain ‘extended to all Arab countries with no exception’, to close ‘ranks and repudiate divisions and rifts and overcome ordeals and hardships experienced now by our region under various contexts and pretexts’. However, as explained above, Algeria is contributing to this division by supporting the Polisario movement against its neighbour, Morocco financially, militarily and diplomatically.
Since Tebboune was elected president last December, Algerian media, political parties and think tanks, such as the newly establish l’Institut des études stratégiques globales, have increased their anti-Morocco rhetoric. Retired General Major Abdelaziz Medjahed, Director of l’Institut des études stratégiques globales, who has also been security and military affairs adviser to the President since February 2020, said in a Radio Algérie interview on 20 November 2020 that Algeria should take actions against countries that support Moroccan policy on Western Sahara and refuse to recognise and support the Polisario movement. Algerian media, political parties and think tanks present Morocco to their readers and audiences as the worst regime in the world.
Doing business in Algeria is not easy. The economy remains under state control – a legacy of the country’s socialist post-independence development model. In recent years, the government has halted the privatisation of state-owned industries and imposed restrictions on imports and foreign involvement in its entire economy, pursuing an explicit import substitution policy.
The economy is dominated by the export of petroleum and natural gas which have long been the backbone of Algeria’s economy, accounting for roughly 30 per cent of GDP, 60 per cent of budget revenues, and nearly 95 per cent of export earnings. Algeria has the tenth largest reserves of natural gas in the world – including the third-largest reserves of shale gas – and is the sixth-largest gas exporter. It ranks sixteenth in proven oil reserves. Hydrocarbon exports enabled Algeria to maintain macroeconomic stability, amass large foreign currency reserves, and maintain low external debt while global oil prices were high. With lower oil prices since 2014, Algeria’s foreign exchange reserves have declined by more than half and its oil stabilisation fund has decreased from about $20 billion at the end of 2013 to about $6 billion in 2019.
The protectionist measures taken by the Algerian government, as well as corruption, bureaucracy, a weak financial sector and legal insecurity in terms of intellectual property rights, are serious obstacles to investment. The participation of a foreign investor in an Algerian company is limited to 49 per cent and foreign contractors are forced to find local partners for public tenders. In addition, the judiciary carries a high corruption risk for companies operating in Algeria. The courts are subject to political influence and are susceptible to corruption. The Algerians perceive their judiciary to be the most corrupt public institution.
Foreign judgments are not recognised by the courts despite Algeria being a signatory of the New York Convention 1958 and the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). Algiers has increased protectionist measures since 2015 to limit its import bill and encourage domestic production of non-oil and gas industries and since 2016 has imposed additional restrictions on access to foreign exchange for imports, and import quotas for specific products such as cars. In January 2018, the government imposed an indefinite suspension on the importation of roughly 850 products, subject to periodic review.
1. Chengriha was born on 1 August 1945 at El Kentara, Biskra Province. He joined the army in 1961 and took part in the Arab–Israeli Six-Day War of 1967 as well as the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He served as commander of the ground forces in various regions and had been the right-hand man of General Gaid Salah. Back
2. Years earlier, when he came to power in 1992 the late President Mohamed Boudiaf had upset Algerian military intelligence services and supporters of Polisario when he questioned the cost of maintaining Polisario-run camps in Algeria and said his government wanted to put an end to this conflict. Boudiaf was killed by one of his own bodyguards on 29 June 1992 in Annaba while addressing a public meeting live on television. The police officer who killed the president was presented officially as an Islamic fundamentalist, who acted alone. Back