Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has spent seventeen years in office, and is now serving his fourth term. His first election, in 1999, was welcomed by many Algerians and the international community. Bouteflika was not only a civilian, after a run of presidents from the military, but also freely elected, winning 73.5 percent of the vote.

With the president now ailing (the seventy-nine-year-old Bouteflika suffered a stroke in 2013 and campaigned a year later from a wheelchair), an assessment of his political legacy is in order. Two major political achievements stand out from the president’s years in power: the fact that he oversaw Algeria’s transition to a postwar society; and his reinvigoration of Algerian foreign policy, ending the country’s isolation during the years of civil war.

Dalia Ghanem
Dalia Ghanem was a senior resident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where her research focuses on Algeria’s political, economic, social, and security developments. Her research also examines political violence, radicalization, civil-military relationships, transborder dynamics, and gender.
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As Algeria begins preparing for the post-Bouteflika era, the president’s political legacy will have a major impact on shaping what lies ahead for the country. Despite the return to stability, the national reconciliation policy appears fragile as it failed to address the roots of the country’s violence. Yet doing so may become unavoidable to better deal with a host of challenges, including unemployment, poverty, housing shortages, corruption, a lack of governance, and the threat of jihadism. In addition, Algeria operates in a highly unstable region, which makes its traditional policy of nonintervention no longer viable.

Architect of an Imperfect Reconciliation

Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s most important achievement is that he was the architect of peace following Algeria’s civil war of 1991–2001. Following his election, Bouteflika put reconciliation at the center of his program. The president gave millions of Algerians hope for a better life after the so-called Black Decade, gaining significant popularity and legitimacy in the process, even if his reputation has suffered since.

The Algerian conflict began after the first round of legislative elections in December 1991, when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was on the verge of winning a parliamentary majority. The government suspended the second round of voting, and then president Chadli Bendjedid resigned under pressure from the military, which took effective control of the country. Bendjedid was later replaced by Liamine Zéroual in 1995. The authorities banned the FIS and arrested its leadership as well as many of its sympathizers. The brutal repression and indiscriminate violence by the security forces contributed to the radicalization of thousands of Algerians, many of whom were not involved with the Islamist movement. The ensuing conflict caused the deaths of over 150,000 people, the disappearance of 7,000 others, and the internal displacement of around 1 million Algerians. In addition, thousands were tortured, abducted, or raped, with the war estimated to have cost some $20 billion in material damages.

Bouteflika’s first step when he took office was to push for the adoption of the Civil Concord Law, an extension of the Clemency Law initiated by Zéroual in 1996. The Civil Concord Law was announced in July 1999 and approved by a wide margin of 98.6 percent in a referendum on September 16, 1999. The law had a limited time frame, lasting only until January 13, 2000. In theory, it established a six-month period during which armed Islamists who had no blood on their hands, had not committed rape, or had not set off bombs in public places could apply for amnesty. Those who had engaged in such actions were excluded, but would receive reduced sentences. In practice, however, things were different. Many applicants denied having participated in the proscribed acts and were pardoned based on such a rejection only. No investigations were conducted to verify their claims.  

In August 2005, so as to “transcend the national tragedy once and for all” and put an end to “the great fitna [civil strife] that struck Algeria,” Bouteflika issued the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. In remarks some months earlier that reflected his thinking on the matter, the president stated: “In peace, Algerians learned how to live together, how to accept their differences of opinions, and how to uphold the fact that, ultimately, none of them has an alternative homeland on which to fall back.”

The charter outlined a series of measures, including the suspension of legal action against members of armed groups who had surrendered before August 26, 2006, and who had not engaged in certain specific acts of violence. It also compensated victims of the war, such as the families of missing persons and of members of the armed Islamist groups. The charter gave immunity to police, gendarmerie, and army personnel involved in human rights abuses. It forbade all those “responsible for the instrumentalization of religion that led to the national tragedy” from engaging in any kind of political activities. And the charter outlined steps, including prison terms and fines, to penalize those who opposed or criticized its provisions.

According to Merouane Azzi, a lawyer and the president of the official committee working for the charter’s implementation, the document allowed the reintegration of some 15,000 former combatants into society. Of the 27,000 armed Islamists fighting in the 1990s, 16,930 were estimated to have been killed. However, these numbers have not been confirmed, as the Algerian authorities never released complete figures on the number of war dead.

The government’s initiative was perceived by many, such as one family member of a missing person interviewed by Le Monde, as an effort by the state to “bury the secrets” and wipe the slate clean. In addition, families of the victims and the missing disapproved of being included in the same category as families of the perpetrators of crimes. In response to the charter, they created organizations such as the Association of Families of the Disappeared in Algeria (le Collectif des Familles de Disparus en Algerie), SOS Disappeared (SOS Disparus), Resistance (Somoud), and Our Algeria (Djazairouna). These associations sought to defend the victims of terrorism and demanded the truth from the authorities regarding forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and human rights violations committed by the security forces. They also provided administrative, judicial, and psychological assistance to relatives of the disappeared. Since the reconciliation, they have been calling for the repeal of what they see as a law of impunity. Against the critics, the government invoked popular support for the charter in the national referendum as a confirmation of its legitimacy.

Despite the flaws, Bouteflika’s post-civil-war reconciliation initiatives contributed significantly to the return of peace and stability in the country, even if a hefty price was paid by certain groups such as the families of the victims. In addition, some Islamists (except those in the FIS) were integrated into the political process. A few groups, such as the Movement of Society for Peace, joined coalition governments and secured several parliamentary seats and ministerial portfolios. Bouteflika even appointed an Islamist, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, as minister of foreign affairs in 2000 and as head of the government in 2006. These moves allowed the regime to regain legitimacy thanks to its willingness to permit Islamists to take part in the political system. Such achievements benefited Algeria’s international status in general and helped lay the groundwork for cooperation with the international community.

The End of Isolation

Aside from the role he played in Algeria’s process of domestic normalization after the civil war, Bouteflika also reinvigorated the country’s foreign policy. He ended the country’s diplomatic isolation during the war years, when the regime was censured for having suspended parliamentary elections and faced an arms embargo imposed by the United States. Algeria’s foreign policy reemergence rested on two broad pillars: the county’s participation as a key partner in the global war against terrorism after September 11, 2001; and its heightened role in Africa, in particular in its immediate neighborhood.

Because of the attacks in the United States, Algiers became, almost overnight, an important antiterrorism partner internationally. Algeria, perceived for a decade as a source of violent extremism, was soon regarded as a key security counterpart to both the United States and the European Union. Washington lifted its arms embargo on the country and integrated Algeria into the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, later the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, and NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue. All these initiatives aimed to enhance counterterrorism cooperation. Since 2004, Algeria has participated in NATO meetings in Brussels and has taken part in joint military exercises with the alliance. In return, Washington has provided satellite information to the Algerian armed forces.

When Bouteflika, who had been the long-standing foreign minister under Houari Boumediene, came to power in 1999, he was determined to restore Algeria’s standing at the international level. At the regional level, Algeria had continued to be active in the Organization of African Unity (OAU) during the years of internal conflict, but it lost its leadership role in the organization to Egypt, Libya, and Morocco. Bouteflika’s first priority was to engage with Algeria’s continental counterparts. In 1999, Algeria hosted the thirty-fifth OAU summit, and in a sign of the direction Bouteflika intended to take, he created a bureau of African affairs at the Foreign Ministry the next year, appointing a former journalist and politician specializing in Africa, Abdelkader Messahel, as its head.

Bouteflika’s appointment of Ramtane Lamamra in September 2013 as foreign minister was equally revealing in this regard. Lamamra, who has been called “Mr. Africa” by the media, is a well-known diplomat who has served as ambassador to Ethiopia and Djibouti, and as commissioner for peace and security in the African Union, which replaced the OAU in 2002. Lamamra has also mediated in several African conflicts, beginning with the one between Burkina Faso and Mali in 1985.

Algeria was successful in pushing an agenda in the OAU for the organization’s exclusion of regimes that had come to power through coups. It also leveraged its recent experience in fighting terrorism to push for the adoption of an OAU convention on terrorism.

Algeria played a prominent role in creating and financing the organizations of the African Union. It pushed for the adoption of the union’s Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, a document that was followed by the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union, which came into force in 2003. Since 2004, Algerians have occupied the post of peace and security commissioner in the organization. In addition, Algiers has played a leading role in the Nouakchott Process, launched in 2013, which promotes regional security cooperation.

With regard to economic cooperation, Algeria was crucial in establishing the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, which aims to better integrate African countries into the global economy. In an effort to assist poorer African states, since 2010 the Algerian government has canceled the debts of fourteen members of the African Union, without condition, representing a write-off of more than $920 million.

Bouteflika also abided by Algeria’s enduring foreign policy principles of nonintervention abroad, noninterference in the internal affairs of other states, and respect for the inviolability of borders and sovereign equality. The government’s diplomatic activities and promotion of political dialogue as the best answer to alleviate the divisions in the Arab world—as opposed to engaging in war—have been recognized even by Algeria’s most outspoken critics, who applauded its rejection of NATO’s intervention in Libya and its refusal to become involved in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.

In line with this, under Bouteflika, Algeria has engaged in high-profile mediation efforts in Tunisia, Libya, and Mali. In Tunisia, it helped stabilize the country during the transition away from the rule of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In 2013, for example, Algiers facilitated exchanges between the secular Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist Ennahdha political movements, partly as an effort to avoid an outcome similar to the one in Algeria. In addition, there is close counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries, with Algeria viewing Tunisia as an important buffer against the instability in Libya.

Algiers opposed NATO’s intervention in Libya and is still pushing for a political dialogue among the various Libyan factions—including Islamists and former officials of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. Algeria’s refusal to condemn the regime and, initially, to recognize the National Transitional Council has been interpreted by many, especially Libyans, as proof of its support for the former Libyan leadership. Its attitude, however, was principally determined by fears that a conflict would lead to a major refugee crisis, the spread of arms and militants throughout the region, and the proliferation of transnational terrorist groups seeking to take advantage of the Libyan chaos. That is precisely what happened. Algeria has not altered its behavior. It still refuses to collaborate with any new Western military intervention in Libya, even one that is limited and that aims to put an end to the presence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State on Europe’s doorstep.  

In Mali, Algeria also sought to facilitate dialogue between the central government in Bamako and two factions associated with the Tuareg ethnic group—the Ansar Dine militant Islamist group and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. However, when the first joined al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (a relationship Ansar Dine denies, even though it is ambiguous) in early 2012 and the second proclaimed the independence of Azawad in April, Algeria, despite its anti-interventionist principles, assisted France in Operation Serval. This was a military operation in 2013–2014 to push the militants out of northern Mali. Algeria opened its airspace to French military aircraft, provided fuel free of charge, and cut off the retreat of terrorist groups as well as their sources of funding.

For Algeria, the secessionist drive among the Tuareg was a threat to its own national security and territorial integrity. The Algerian government recognized the rights of its own Tuareg population beginning in the 1960s and has managed the community effectively since then by integrating it politically, socially, and economically into the state. However, the authorities wanted to keep things that way and avoid the repercussions at home of a Tuareg independence drive in neighboring Mali. That is why Algeria mediated between Mali’s central government and different Tuareg factions in 2013–2014, after having done so in 1990 and 2006. Indeed, in the most recent talks Algiers was able to convince six Tuareg armed groups to undertake a rapprochement with Bamako and avoid Mali’s partition.

Certain Uncertainty Ahead

Without a doubt, Algeria is in a better place in 2016 than it was in 1991. Bouteflika’s Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation greatly contributed to the return of stability and security in the country. The reconciliation policy remains a remarkable achievement. Even if there is still a jihadi threat, it is highly localized and sporadic, and cannot in any way be compared to what the country went through during the 1990s. Moreover, collaboration with former jihadists has allowed the security services to gather a vast database of information on armed groups, their networks, and their finances, to be used when required.

However, the major shortcoming of the reconciliation mechanism is that it did not deal with the structural causes of wartime violence. It failed to initiate a process to examine the conditions that led thousands of Algerians to join armed groups. In addition, the issue of the disappeared has not been fully resolved, as there remain 3,104 unsettled cases according to the United Nations.

In effect the Algerian state sought to impose peace on its own people. Such a top-down approach, however, could not bring about genuine reconciliation. The government’s hasty solution only postponed a crisis that is likely to soon return, especially with Algeria presently suffering from political immobility and facing severe financial challenges due to the drop in global oil and gas prices and a rentier economy that has made the state vulnerable to external shocks.

Things have been helped little by the fact that Bouteflika, once viewed as bringing hope to millions of Algerians, is today regarded as a man who has tarnished Algeria’s reputation. He amended the constitution to be able to run for office beyond the mandated two terms. He covered up high-level corruption and supported laws that weakened civil society. In addition, with a mix of repression and generous handouts thanks to Algeria’s hydrocarbon wealth, Bouteflika was able to buy social peace, defuse the 2011 protests that echoed the protests elsewhere in the region, and maintain the status quo. However, neither oil and gas prices nor Bouteflika’s health is improving. The absence of a power-sharing mechanism among all relevant groups—political parties, the opposition, civil society, and the legislative and executive branches—and the existence of internal regime conflicts make the renewal of the political system hard to envisage.

As for Algeria’s firm policy of nonintervention, it too may pose problems for the country, given that the region is changing so rapidly. If Algeria wants to be an anchor of stability in a highly unstable region, then it must review its policy of not intervening in other countries. Its refusal to do so in Mali, especially after being asked by Bamako, meant Algiers missed an opportunity to engage in collective action to contain regional terrorist groups. This effectively undermined the stated purpose of the General Staff Joint-Operations Committee (Comité D’état-major Opérationnel Conjoint, or CEMOC), established to coordinate between Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger on counterterrorism operations. As the January 2013 attack on the Tigantourine gas facility near In Amenas showed, instability in neighboring countries will continue to have a great bearing on Algerian national security. The threats from southern Libya and Tunisia, as well as from the Sahel region, are numerous. They range from the traffic of illegal migrants (up to 120,000 per year pass through Niger), small arms, and drugs to the proliferation of violent jihadi groups. For Algeria to simply reinforce its borders is no longer sufficient. The country’s vast military capabilities (Algeria is the largest weapons buyer in Africa, with annual military spending exceeding $10 billion as of 2014) should be used to maintain stability in the region.

After seventeen years of Bouteflika in power, Algeria is facing new realities to which the president’s successor will have to adapt. But the inability of its leaders to rejuvenate the domestic political system or reconsider the nature of Algerian behavior abroad could represent genuine risks for the country’s future.