The Algerian political system and the state’s administrative structure have been remarkably stable since independence in 1962. At the same time, many imbalances that resulted in the political and economic crisis of the 1980s and the subsequent civil war have persisted.
Amongst the institutions that have maintained stability, the military and security apparatus is the strongest and predates independent Algeria. It is the main player in the political game, either directly or indirectly. The army’s predominance followed from the intransigence of the French and their obstruction of more reformist ways of extending the native population’s rights, which left armed struggle as their only practical option. This does not mean that other institutions are irrelevant. The state’s administrative system, with all its weaknesses, does function, extending to the level of local communities in every corner of the country. Some institutions, such as the diplomatic services, have proven particularly successful. The economic system has structural shortcomings but has been able to keep the main processes running, in particular those related to the oil and gas sector, and to improve the infrastructure. It is rather that the functioning of many state structures is ultimately subordinated to decisions made by the politico-military establishment, which consists of a small group of the heads of the Armed Forces and the intelligence services.
Colonialism and the war of independence also brought with them a sense of national identity that had been weak before 1830. In the Berber cultural movement, for example, the emphasis is on the definition of the Algerian identity, not on promoting a separate state.
Algeria’s leaders have sought to maintain stability by the use of revenues from oil and gas in the international market. Especially after the huge increase in oil prices in the 1970s these funds not only helped build the economy but also served to legitimize the rule of the state leadership emanating from the army and the governing party, the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN). Together with the industrialization programme and the building of a physical infrastructure, the creation of employment and basic social services strengthened the state’s claim that it was fulfilling the promise of a better life that it had made the population.
With each generation, the experience with the war of independence has faded further, but this does not reduce the importance of this legacy for Algerian politics. Many leaders, in both the regime and the opposition, still claim legitimacy by referring to their role in the independence movement, and many Algerians have the special social status of a former fighter in the war, or mujahid. The extent of this phenomenon appears from the fact that more than 1 million people receive a war pension, consuming USD 2.3 billion annually. Nationalism and an aversion to foreign intervention are still part of the worldview of most politicians, including those belonging to the post-war generation. Over the years it has, however, become far more difficult for state leaders, political parties, and state institutions to appropriate the idea of nationhood for the promotion of their own interests. While the sense of national identity still holds for most Algerians, the credibility of its self-proclaimed defenders has often been tarnished. This was one of the reasons that, with the introduction of a multiparty system in 1989, the FLN could not play the nationalist card against the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS). The Islamists claimed themselves to be the true representatives of the Algerian revolution, whose intentions they saw betrayed by the ‘corrupt’ former state party.
The sudden abolition of the single-party structure and the subsequent catastrophe of civil war emphasized the limits of the resources and capabilities of the political system. The crisis showed the absence of credible institutions mediating between the state elites and the people. It proved that the dependence on oil and gas revenues was not a sustainable basis on which to maintain state and social relations, as the state’s power fluctuated with prices on the global markets, and it hinted at the incapacity of the upper echelons of the state to manage the crisis successfully, without piling one disaster on another.
Two decades on, the system and its leadership seem incapable of resolving these fundamental issues. Opposition parties are allowed to compete in elections, but they are unable to gain significant power on account of the way the system functions and the fact that the military and security establishment still decides important issues. There is extensive freedom of the press to criticize those in power, but it is not unlimited. The enormous increase in civil-society organizations has not given citizens more influence on the political process, but rather appears to be another mechanism of control. The political system has been largely unable to eliminate the widespread distrust of the population, even as the resurgence of oil-related income enhances, at least somewhat, the ability of the state to fulfil those needs.
Formally, the President has substantial powers and may overrule other power centres. In reaching decisions, he has to agree with the heads of the military and security apparatus. This makes the Algerian system a far more collective enterprise than those of many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where the President personifies the system. It appears that this state of affairs has actually strengthened the position of the President and the entire system. Protesters and political opponents, for example, usually demand changes in what they refer to as le pouvoir (the power), instead of demanding the resignation of the President, as they expect that change at the top does not fundamentally alter the workings of Algerian politics.
The first head of state of independent Algeria was President Ahmed Ben Bella, a civilian and one of the nine ‘historic’ leaders of the FLN, who ruled from 1963 to 1965. He owed his position to his alliance with the liberation army headed by Colonel Houari Boumedienne. Although his position was initially the result of the struggle for power among the various factions in the liberation movement, Ben Bella obtained a clear popular mandate. In the 1962 presidential elections, the enthusiasm for a state headed by one of their own people for the first time resulted in a huge voter turnout.
Ben Bella, who died in 2012, had to function as head of state by balancing various political forces that disagreed strongly about the country’s political and economic orientation. In these circumstances, and in comparable episodes in the subsequent decades, presidents with a military background took charge, to the detriment of civilian candidates. This was the case with Ben Bella’s former ally and Defence Minister Boumedienne (1965-1978), who ousted Ben Bella in a bloodless coup in 1965. In order to put an end to political chaos, President Boumediene wanted to remove the existing institutions in order to be free to build new ones that would express his vision of Algerian socialism and eliminate the earlier infighting.
After Boumedienne’s sudden death from illness in December 1978, the military establishment appointed their supreme commander, Colonel Chadli Bendjedid (1979-1992), as his successor. The coup of 1992 showed that it was again the military that decided the rules of the political game. For some years, the presidency was in fact assumed by the chairman of the High State Council. The failure of this institution to produce a political breakthrough during the civil war paved the way for General Liamine Zéroual (1994-1999).
A new series of elections marked the beginning of the rule of Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1999-present). The former Minister of Foreign Affairs was re-elected three times, albeit in contested elections. In the summer of 2012 there were rumours in the Algerian press about the creation of the post of Vice-President. Given earlier health problems that forced president Bouteflika to reduce his tasks, this might well be a way to guarantee continuity should the President be unable to function.
The President wields the main executive powers and is supported by the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers. Abdelmalek Sellal was appointed Prime Minister in September 2012.
Since the restoration of the multiparty system in 1997, most cabinets have been coalitions between the ‘institutional’ parties FLN and RND (Rassemblement National Démocratique, National Democratic Rally) with one or more Islamist and secular parties.
The basic judicial institutions are the tribunals and, at the level of each province, the courts. At the national level, the Supreme Court acts as a supervisor of these local jurisdictions. In 1998 the State Council was created in order to advise the Council of Ministers on the introduction of new legislation. Whenever necessary, the Conflicts Tribunal defines the prerogatives of each institution.
The system is completed by the Criminal and Administrative Tribunals. Separate from the civilian judiciary, the Military Tribunal has jurisdiction over military personnel and organizations.
The Algerian legal system is based on European traditions and, to a lesser extent, on Islamic law (Sharia). In colonial times, the French judicial system prevailed, but local courts could still refer to Islamic law in civil and family-law cases. At independence, the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN) wanted to reduce the French influence, but found it difficult. Things were further complicated by the reference to both socialism and Islam during the Boumedienne era. Most controversial, however, were the efforts by his successor, President Bendjedid, to introduce a Family Law in which Islamic elements prevailed and the judicial position of women was weakened. In 2005, the law was revised to give women more rights in matters of inheritance and child custody. Judicial reform at the end of the 1980s expanded civic rights, although some of these freedoms were revoked by the security regulations introduced with the state of emergency in 1992.
Judges are appointed by the Minister of Justice. The Algerian system comprises courts at the level of municipalities, courts of appeal located in the capitals of the 48 provinces (wilayat), and the Supreme Court.
After a period of strong centralization during the Boumedienne era, his successor, President Bendjedid, expanded the prerogatives of local government as part of his policy to promote the development of the regions outside the major cities.
The 2012 parliamentary elections resulted in a major victory for the FLN, which, together with the National Democratic Rally (Rassemblement National Démocratique, RND), obtained an absolute majority of seats. The Islamist block scored far lower than predicted, especially by its leadership, while the FFS declared that its 20 seats were in line with expectations. More significant still was the level of participation, as reported by the government, of only 42 percent, with far lower turnouts in the capital. This sign of distrust was compounded by strong protests by the opposition, which accused the government of widespread fraud and manipulation of the elections.
In terms of the number of seats in Parliament, the main political groups are the ‘institutional’ parties FLN and RND. Having originated in the liberation movement, the former state party FLN has always encompassed a variety of ideological currents, regional interests, and personal ambitions.
Throughout recent history – to mention but a few examples – socialist and liberal tendencies competed to succeed Boumedienne; Islamic conservatives within the party won the debate on the Family Law; and overambitious reformers struggled with staunch bureaucrats over how to deal with the bankrupt economy.
This sort of pluralism within a single party has, in a way, continued since the FLN lost its monopoly. This has not prevented it from being a major – often the main – party in Parliament and in the provincial and municipal councils.
The RND was created in 1996 by the then head of state, General Liamine Zéroual, at the time when the FLN-leadership was at odds with the military establishment and even joined the FIS (and the FFS) in a pact aimed at stopping the civil war. Since then, the RND has provided some prime ministers in alternation with the FLN. In general, the party programmes and actual policies of the two parties, which are presently both allied with President Bouteflika, are hard to tell apart.
The ban on the FIS in 1992 did not spell the end of Islamist party activism. While the military and political leadership blamed the Front for all the violence that followed the cancellation of the elections at the time, they did not prevent other proponents of political Islam from taking part in formal political life. This has much to do with the huge, often overlooked, differences within the Islamist current that already existed when the FIS came into existence. Some leading Islamists, such as Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah, strongly opposed the radical populism of the FIS and instead promoted a strategy of gradual Islamization of society. He founded his own party, which later came to be known as the Movement for the Society of Peace (Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix, MSP; formerly called Hamas). Under his successors, the MSP has been a partner in several coalition governments. In 2012 it entered a union with two other Islamist parties, under the banner of the Green Algeria Alliance (Alliance de l’Algérie Verte, green being the colour of Islam).
Another prominent Islamist who emerged on the political scene towards the end of the 1980s is Abdallah Djaballah. He has founded three parties, of which the Islamic Renaissance Movement (Mouvement de la Renaissance Islamique; al-Nahda, or Ennahda, Renaissance, for short) and the Movement for National Reform (Mouvement pour la Réforme Nationale; al-Islah, Reform, for short) continued without their leader and joined the Green Alliance. With a new party, Djaballah took part in the parliamentary election of 2012.
Although the Alliance came third in the 2012 elections and it has been assumed that voting irregularities took place, it is also clear that these Islamist parties are no longer regarded as opposing the political system.
The secularist current builds on a long tradition of ideas and organizations within the Algerian national movement. This is particularly true for the various shades of socialist ideas, and, to a lesser extent, liberal ones. Although the socialist tendency within the FLN at times strongly manifested itself, the official ‘Algerian socialism’ was often deemed a vague nationalist amalgam that also included an insistence on Islam as the state religion. It is therefore not surprising that several leftist parties have emerged since 1989. The Workers’ Party (Parti des Travailleurs, PT) is a Trotskyist group and one of the few parties headed by a woman, Louisa Hanoune. The party pleads for social rights and strongly opposes further denationalization and the growing role of multinationals in the Algerian economy.
The FFS has a more social-democratic profile and is the oldest contender with the FLN and the military that ruled in its name. It is the only secular party with a mass base, but this following is limited largely to the party’s stronghold among the Berber population in (or originating from) Kabylia. This also applies to the Rally for Culture and Democracy (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie, RCD), whose support is more middle-class in origin and liberal in outlook. The rivalry between the two parties extends beyond their competition for the Berber vote but points to broader questions with which secular parties – in Algeria and elsewhere in the Arab world – are struggling: how to deal with Islamism, and how this affects the relationship with the (military) leadership. In the 1990s the secular parties and civil-society organizations were divided over whether to support the cancellation of elections in order to prevent the FIS from winning. Since the end of the civil war, the FFS and RCD have struggled with their position in a political system that provides them space to manifest themselves but that they regard as hardly democratic.
In 1997 the FFS decided to take part in the first parliamentary elections after the coup, then boycotted elections, before again taking part in elections, in the May 2012 vote. The RCD, a staunchly secularist party, conversely even took part in a coalition government including the Islamist MSP. Both parties also had difficulties connecting with social movements. The uprising in Kabylia in 2001 was largely the doing of local grassroots committees, and in 2011 the RCD’s attempt to capture the mood of the Arab Spring was short-lived.
History has produced strong ties with the former colonial power. Both France and Algeria find it difficult to acknowledge some of what happened during the war of independence. Meanwhile, a large community of people of Algerian descent have lived in France for decades, as labourers and their children, as former harkis (who fought for France), or as political exiles who fled Algeria during the civil war of the 1990s.
Algeria’s relationships with the neighbouring countries of the Maghreb have long been determined by its rivalry with Morocco. At independence, Morocco claimed part of Algeria and in the 1970s occupied the Western Sahara, whose independence movement POLISARIO is allied with Algiers. This issue remains a bone of contention. The Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Libya were viewed with scepticism and fear by the Algerian establishment. Especially in the Libyan case, Algeria saw an early warning that the chaotic situation would lead to proliferation of arms across the permeable Saharan borders, a fear confirmed in the Mali uprising in 2012 and the attack on the Algerian gas field of In Amenas.
- Regular army: 400,000
- Gendarmerie Nationale: 100,000
- Garde Republicaine: 5,000
- Budget of the army: USD 10.3 billion in 2013
The military are a major political player and have been leading the building of the Algerian state since the beginning of the war of independence in 1954. The ALN, the National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale) was the military wing of the FLN (National Liberation Front, Front de Libération Nationale). In the course of the war, the importance of the guerrilla fighters in the interior (who were no match for the French colonial army) was overshadowed by the build-up of a regular military force over the borders in neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia. This was the power base of Boumedienne, who, during his rule, relied on his closest allies, who were based at his headquarters in Oujda, Morocco.
This army on the borders was later joined by officers who had defected from the French army, among them another future head of state, Chadli Bendjedid. The French-trained officers distinguished themselves from those who, after 1962, received training in the Soviet Union.
After independence, the military were involved in a circular power shift, in which they took the lead at decisive moments, then retreated and left the scene to civilian politicians – formally, that is, because the upper echelons of the army were still involved in decision making. The military institution is also the cradle of the powerful security services.