The three-time Prime Minister and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s chief of staff is a “child of independence”, a member of a low-profile generation omnipresent in business biding its time until it can play a key role in the country’s future.
In late November 1995, retired general Liamine Zéroual was elected president of Algeria, restoring hope to millions of people exhausted by nearly four years of violence and clashes between security forces and armed Islamic groups in which civilians paid the highest price. Terrorist attacks and assassinations targeting all those the Armed Islamic Group, known by its French acronym GIA, considered its enemies or government supporters, including intellectuals, civil servants, artists, trade unionists and teachers, rocked the country and wrecked its economy.
Algeria was on the brink of bankruptcy and needed to implement the agreement concluded in 1994 with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Meanwhile, the press pondered who the new Prime Minister would be. Persistent rumours pointed to Ahmed Ouyahia, a senior civil servant born in Kabylia in 1952, 10 years before independence, who had just participated in the first talks with the former Islamic Salvation Front, known by its French acronym FIS. Yet Ouyahia was unknown to the general public and not really a political insider. The journalists who mentioned his name dubbed him a “technocrat”, a senior civil servant without a network or political support within the government.
They were wrong. Ouyahia, who became Prime Minister on 31 December 1995 and eventually served three terms (1995-1998, 2003-2006 and 2008-2012), had long belonged to what political scientists call “the deep State”, the tangled web of civil servants and army officers who keep a country running regardless of who is in power. Portrayed as a possible successor to President Bouteflika, Ouyahia has always been an important gear in the system. He had no need—or desire—to be in the spotlight.
A NETWORK MAN
Ouyahia belongs to “generation II”, the low-profile group of men who rose to power just after the leaders of the “Revolution” left the scene. They still stand in the shadow of the veterans of the war for independence and the historic members of the National Liberation Front (FLN): they were born too late to take part in the anti-colonial struggle. “That generation is on the rise,” says political scientist Nacer Jabi. “In a way, they’ve already taken power because nothing can be done without them. Of course, they only carry out orders, but they’re in firm control. Their only limit is having to wait for their elders to exit the stage. They stick together and have a deep understanding of what Algeria has become.”
Ouyahia, then, is a network man. In 1975, he entered the National Administration School (ENA), which produced all the young Algerian State’s civil servants, majoring in diplomacy. A 1977 traineeship in the Algerian president’s office opened up doors to him. “In the 1970s, the ENA was the breeding ground of power in Algeria,” one of his classmates said. “Its students were future diplomats, cabinet ministers’ chiefs of staff, heads of public companies and walis [editor’s note: prefects]. Today, they all know and support each other. Something they share in common is having to deal with elders who are often incompetent but whom they have loyally served. They’re not out to make a revolution or drastically change the system; they’ve got too much at stake. They’ve been biding their time for a good decade now.”
By the late 1970s, Ouyahia had already carved out a place in the heart of Algeria’s power structure. A civil service trainee in the President’s office under Houari Boumediene before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ African Affairs Department, his career as a diplomat took off. His postings took him from Côte d’Ivoire to Mali, the UN in New York and back and forth to Algiers in between—meaning he was “in” and “out” at the same time, part of the system without having to deal much with political infighting and factional struggles. Being in New York put him in a good position to do favours for people back home, where shortages are rife. Above all, the system considers him “safe”. Consequently, many Algerians think he was or still is in the “services”.
Of course, that is hard to ascertain and the question is divisive. One thing is certain: it would have been impossible to hold such positions without the consent of the former Sécurité militaire (Military Security, SM), which later became the Intelligence and Security Department (DRS). “High-level civil servants everywhere in the world must obtain security clearance,” says a former classmate. “That doesn’t make them active members of the secret services.” In any case, Ouyahia is close to that invisible power. What else can explain his political survival when so many others, like Ali Benflis, Prime Minister from 2000 to 2003 and Bouteflika’s hand-picked successor before falling out of favour for being in too much of a hurry, have disappeared from the radar screen?
Ouyahia was Prime Minister three times, Minister of Justice in the Benbitour and Benflis governments and President Bouteflika’s Minister of State, special envoy to broker the peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000 and chief of staff. This “servant of the Republic” has held more high-ranking positions than any other Algerian political figure. His longevity commands his rivals’ respect and suggests hard-boiled determination. “He’s very tough,” says a former minister from the Zeroual period. That was nearly 20 years ago, but few Algerians have forgotten the harshness of the first Ouyahia government.
As a rising tide of violence engulfed Algeria—1996 to 1998 was the period when civilians were being massacred on a massive scale—the government implemented IMF demands and applied economic and social shock therapy. Hundreds of local public companies—small firms created during the country’s socialist period—were dismantled overnight. Pensions fell, taxes rose and State-owned monopolies fell like dominoes.
Meanwhile, the heads of several State-owned companies found themselves behind bars for mismanagement (some were cleared and released in the early 2000s). “Ouyahia waged a social war on Algerian workers without blinking an eye,” says a member of the Union générale des travailleurs algériens (General Union of Algerian Workers). He admitted as much, arguing that the situation called for drastic measures and economic adjustment. “You were the victims of a context,” he enigmatically told the jailed heads of the giant steelmaker Sider, who were cleared during their appeals trial.
What did he mean by that? It is anybody’s guess, for another Ouyahia trait is his penchant for cryptic comments. A methodical manager, he systematically takes notes on index cards, brooks no contradiction and seems to have unwavering political opinions. The State must be the economy’s driving force and the Algerian private sector, for which he has very little regard, kept on a tight lead. He agreed to the IMF reforms in 1994, but the State started wielding its heavy hand again as soon as the improved economy allowed Algeria to forego help from the international institution.
The creed of nationalist-tinged Statism can be found in relations with the rest of the world. Foreign investors must adapt to local legislation; bowing to the pressures of globalisation is unthinkable. Ouyahia often says Algeria must manage on its own without relying on the West, always prompt to interfere in its sovereign affairs.
A story sums up his worldview. As part of President Obama’s effort to help Africa in the late 2000s, a group of high-ranking US officials visited the Prime Minister bearing offers of assistance and expertise in the area of health policy. “What can Algeria do for you?” Ouyahia asked. A brief, awkward silence followed. The message was clear. Algeria is not a beggar and never will be.
Ouyahia is socially conservative but opposed to political Islam. The Rassemblement National Démocratique (Democratic National Assembly, RND), a party created in the 1990s that did very well in the first elections in which it took part, allowed him to gradually move away from the FLN. Its leader from 1999 to 2012, he was ousted in the aftermath of intra-party squabbling but regained his post in June 2015.
The RND enables Ouyahia to burnish his nationalist credentials and voice mistrust of France while at the same time criticize the FLN, which he accuses of trading on Algeria’s colonial past in order to cling to whatever legitimacy it may still possess in the eyes of the people. “Ouyahia is an Erdogan without Islamism,” says a leader of the Front des forces socialistes (Front of Socialist Forces, FFS). “I’ve never heard him defend democracy or pluralism. What interests him is an all-powerful State. He’s a product of the centralisation period.”
The key question remains. Can Ouyahia succeed Bouteflika and checkmate the ambitions of Said, the president’s brother, or other insider candidates? Given the arcane labyrinth of the Algerian government, it is hard to answer. But his generation is chomping at the bit and he has what it takes, including an insider’s knowledge of the system, an extensive network, countless contacts in the administration and, perhaps most important of all, the lack of any personal involvement in the many corruption scandals that have tainted Algeria in recent years. The trouble is, Ouyahia was born in the Berber-speaking Kabylia region, in the wilaya of Tizi-Uzu.
While it is true that many Kabyles have served their country well, some Algerians cling to the belief that they are out to run the country. “That’s a cliché from the past,” says a non-Berber-speaking senior official. “Since the civil war and the Bouteflika years, the idea that a Kabyle can become President no longer seems so far-fetched. On the contrary, for the system, it could help to sell the idea of breaking with the past.”
A staunch nationalist, Ouyahia has always turned a deaf ear to the Berber-speaking minority’s demands. Many Kabyles bitterly recall that a law on the widespread use of Arabic in government was passed during his first stint as Prime Minister. But at a time of rising demands for Kabyle autonomy, if not independence, electing Ouyahia as president would send an important message.
In 1995, he was labelled a “technocrat” with no government network. That was a mistake.
FROM THE REVOLUTIONARY FAMILY TO THE SECOND WAVE
Algerians call them “the elders”, the “revolutionary family” or “the historic leaders”. Nationalist militants, National Liberation Army veterans and senior FLN members during the War of Independence or Revolution, such as Houari Boumediene and his comrades in the “Oujda clan”, of whom Abdelaziz Bouteflika is the last survivor, have long held political power.
For decades, it was inconceivable to even think of becoming President without belonging to “generation I”, which long showed no signs of any inclination to step aside. Presidents Chadli Bendjedid, Mohamed Boudiaf, Ali Kafi and Liamine Zeroual were in that group. Today, the youngest members of the djil al-thawri (“revolutionary generation”) are over 70. Barring a huge surprise, Algeria’s next leader will belong to “generation II”, which was too young to have taken part in the Revolution or the war against France.
Somebody from the intermediate generation, such as former Prime Ministers Ali Benfliss, Ahmed Benbittour, Abdelmalek Sellal or Mouloud Hamrouche, might succeed, but their chances are slim because the “children of independence” are determined to take over. Ahmed Ouyahia is already one of the oldest among them, followed by men in their fifties, including Ali Haddad, president of the Forum des chefs d’entreprise (Business Leaders Forum, FCE), and Soufiane Djilali, head of the Jil jadid (“New Generation”) party.