On April 27th, 2013, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s current president, has once more been hospitalized at the prestigious french military hospital “Le Val-De-Grace” in Paris. Algerians from all walks of life are wondering about what happened to their head of state, and more importantly, why Algerian authorities are not communicating nor are being transparent about the health of the most important man in the country.
Much speculation has gone on on the streets of Algeria’s big cities, suburbs, and villages about the what would happen to the country in the event that Mr. Bouteflika came to die, or be removed from power because of an illness he’s been battling for the past decade.
Tensions also seem to have risen among political parties, civil organizations, and citizens alike, who now constitute two distinct camps; the first one defending Bouteflika, his presidency, and his plans to stay in power for yet another term as president (Bouteflika had the Constitution amended back in 2008, specifically removing term limits for a sitting president, and therefore, allowing himself to stay in power for life), and the second camp calling for the destitution of the President through Article 88 of the Constitution based on the fact that he can no longer fulfill his duties as President due to his life threatening and permanent illness.
While Mr. Bouteflika’s health and whereabouts are what most Algerians are talking about today, a movement for democratic change has taken shape and is already discussing ways and methods to prevent a possible chaos should the current president remain in office in spite of his incapacity to run the country’s affairs.
This new movement is lead by economist and former prime minister Ahmed Benbitour as well as Mr. Soufiane Djilali, President of “Jil Jadid” Party (New Generation Party). Algerians in general have lost all trust in the current system of government as well as in those who have claimed, throughout Algeria’s five decades of independence from France, that they possess the means, the ideas, and the will to bring about change. Mr. Benbitour and Mr. Djilali’s idea of change resides in key factors that aim to keep Algeria away from the turmoil, tensions, and most importantly armed conflict that has shaken parts of the Arab world (Mainly Libya and Syria) and led to the fall of three dictators; Benali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, and Qadafi of Libya.
Mr. Benbitour’s and Mr. Djilali’s idea of democratic change resides in the following key points; 1) Preventing Algeria’s current self imposed president Bouteflika from taking a fourth term in office, 2) Uniting all forces of change (Political parties, Civil organizations, and Algerians from all walks of life) regardless of their vision for the country, to form a united front against the status quo, corruption, and dictatorship, 3) Creating a transitional phase in which the Administration re-organizes itself to better serve the citizenry through transparent institutions and a more efficient public service, 4) Getting rid of the decades long fraudulent electoral system in which a powerful few decide who becomes president, prime minister, governor and all other strategic government posts in spite of a completely different popular choice, 5) Creating an economic transition from depending solely on revenues generated by Oil and Natural Gas exports, to diversifying the economy through investing in renewable energies, in professional training for the youth in modern technologies, developing agriculture through training in (and the use of) modern technologies and techniques to provide Algeria with its own “Food Security”, and finally rebuilding the country’s infrastructure to facilitate trade and business.
The Bouteflika camp in the meantime, is stressing the fact that the current president’s political program had launched numerous major projects as the creation of an “East-to-West” highway, and the building of nearly half a million apartments to rid Algeria of slums which popped up a little bit everywhere near major cities and towns, and that in itself makes him the “best” candidate for a fourth term in office, and probably “the best president” Algeria could have. The argument could indeed stand, had Mr. Bouteflika’s political program and leadership prevented the generalization of systematic corruption in the way local and foreign companies (bidders) acquired Billions of dollars’ worth of government contracts without necessarily creating meaningful jobs for Algerians (other than becoming a Chauffeur or a Security agent), getting the job done in a timely fashion if at all, or abiding by International standards of safety in building roads, bridges and housing, or safeguarding the environment and the health of local populations. In fact, Mr. Bouteflika’s administration went to great lengths to dissolve almost all organizations (Public and Private) that keep track of how government does business, how it allocates business contracts, how it safeguards the environment and protects the health of the citizenry.
A stark example of the numerous scandals involving Mr. Bouteflika’s own family members (mainly Mr. Bouteflika’s brother “Said Bouteflika” who is said to be Algeria’s de facto ruler and the architect of much of the corruption that goes on in allocating major government contracts to foreign companies and international bidders), close circle of friends, and cabinet ministers appointed by Bouteflika himself; are the “Sonatrach” scandal, the “East-to-West” mega highway scandal, and the “Khalifa bank” scandal.
Mr. Bouteflika’s Energy Minister and close friend “Chakib Khelil” headed such department for about a decade and fraudulently awarded multiple Natural Gas and Oil exploration contracts to SAIPEM (Italian Oil giant) and SNC-Lavalin (Canadian Oil Company) in exchange for over $250 million worth of bribes (according to Italian Newspaper “il Mundo”, February 2013). Bouteflika’s administration purposefully worked with SNC-Lavalin, a company which the World Bank banned from its bidding process for world projects for a period of ten years specifically because of the legendary corrupt reputation it made for itself (According to Canadian Newspaper “La Presse”). Always according to Canadian Newspaper “La Presse”, the World Bank Sanctions came as a direct consequence of investigations which took place in Canada in 2011 regarding bribes given by SNC-Lavalin in exchange for a government contract to build a 6.5 Kilometer bridge (approximately 4 miles) in Bangladesh, as well as irregularities in the way Cambodian government contracts were also given to the same Canadian company. Regarding the “East-to-West” mega highway, according to Mohamed Khaldi; former chief of staff of Algeria’s Minister of Reconstruction and Public Projects (Les Travaux Publiques), Cabinet Minister Amar Ghoul and his entourage, have pocketed important bribes from major Asian Construction companies in order to win bids for the multi-million dollars project (according to Algerian Information Website Algerie-focus.com, published November 18th, 2013). Mr. Ghoul, another ally and protege of Mr. Bouteflika, denied such accusations saying that it was a campaign of misinformation orchestrated by the French and the Americans as they were not awarded any contracts for the “East-to-West” Superhighway. In the financial sector, Algeria under the leadership of Mr. Bouteflika has suffered the biggest financial scandal since it gained independence in 1962. The “Khalifa Bank” scandal erupted in 2003 when hundreds of thousands of Algerians lost their pensions and life savings which were in the care of such bank. While the Algerian government did recuperate many assets belonging to the “Khalifa group” (from Khalifa Airline company, funds frozen by European Capitals, the liquidation of Khalifa TV, etc), it never reimbursed fully or partially any of Khalifa bank customers in Algeria (Le Soir d’Algerie Newspaper, July 27th, 2004). Under such circumstances, one would assume that the Finance minister at the time would have been held accountable for such grotesque oversight, that he would have resigned then probably heard by a commission in parliament. Unfortunately, Mr. Bouteflika rewarded such Minister (Mr. Mourad Medelci) with an even more important position in government by appointing him Algeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister. Mr. Medelci still manages such department until today. Of course, as scandals erupting one after the other, as different cabinet ministers lost their positions (Mainly pushed out by the all powerful Security Services also known as the DRS), Mr. Bouteflika declared not having any knowledge of his appointees’ dealings, that he felt betrayed by their actions, and that if he were given more time in office (hinting at a fourth term as president that he would begin at the age of 77) , he would bring about all changes he had promised to bring 14 years ago. It is important to note however, that none of the Cabinet Ministers mentioned above were ever investigated by Algerian courts.