The Military’s Political Role in the New Algeria

By Belkacem Elguettaa, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, 17 March 2021

The Algerian armed forces’ treatment of the Hirak protest movement and the rush to hold presidential elections undermines military leaders’ credibility as reliable arbiters of political crises between Algerian protesters and ruling civilian elites.


The Algerian military is often described as a state within a state and as an extension of the National Liberation Army, the political apparatus of the National Liberation Front that fought the War of Independence (1954–1962). This legacy has given military elites the legitimacy to run the country along with like-minded, authoritarian civilian elites, excluding those with democratic inclinations. Despite this distinction enjoyed by the Algerian military within the ruling political order, the presidency and the intelligence service have competed with military elites in Algerian politics, as they are capable of negotiating with and neutralizing military elites.

The hallmark of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule (1999–2019) was achieving significant gains in his struggle with the generals. He used his international standing to prevent the specter of international prosecutions of military leaders involved in the Black Decade, the name given to the civil war in the 1990s, during which 200,000 civilians died. He also received support from the intelligence service led by Mohamed Mediene (who also went by the name General Toufik), especially between 1999 and 2006. This support in the struggle against the generals ended with the confirmation of Ahmed Gaid Salah, an ally of Bouteflika, as army chief of staff.

The Military’s Civilian Façade Strategy

Since the 2019 toppling of Bouteflika, the so-called New Algeria has seen the balance of power shift back to the hands of powerful military elites, with no real competition among politicians or the security forces. Bouteflika had fought a fierce battle to settle personal scores with military leaders. Even if current President Abdelmadjid Tebboune wanted to impose his control over the military, he would not find an ally in the security forces. Bouteflika marginalized the intelligence service, then his successor Ahmed Gaid Salah violated the constitution by attaching the intelligence service to the military following the dismissal of the intelligence chief, Bashir Tartag, as the country faced the Hirak protest movement that began on February 22, 2019.

In other words, Tebboune is not equipped to pressure military leaders. On the one hand, generals’ fear of international prosecution has diminished as a result of national reconciliation and of turnover among senior officers. On the other hand, it appears that the files in the possession of the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS, the former name for Algerian intelligence) can no longer be used to exert pressure and extract concessions from senior military officers who may have been involved in the Black Decade. Furthermore, the political arena is devoid of a civilian figure with the political capital to remove the presidency from military patronage.

Thus, the military is back to politics as a political opponent, arbiter, and a decisionmaker, this time with neither a strong presidency to compete against it nor an intelligence service to pressure it. The military has invoked the Hirak movement, stealing legitimacy from the street and transforming the people’s demand for change into change within the same system, according to the same political culture, based on the supremacy of the military over civilian rule.

In the short term, the military will pressure Tebboune to undertake more reforms, which will be limited to renewing representative institutions and instituting enough socioeconomic reforms to delay the return of the masses to the streets. In the medium term, the army will be forced to find a replacement for the seventy-five-year-old Tebboune, who lacks credibility as a reformer, as he was a bureaucrat of the Bouteflika regime who rose to the position of prime minister. Later still, the military may be forced to install a figure with less opposition from within or outside the regime, one who could make concessions to the military. Whether Tebboune is replaced or not, no president in Algeria, even if they are democratically elected, can bring about a significant change unless military elites cooperate with them, since the military is currently the most powerful state apparatus.

Military’s Upper Hand in Foreign Policy

Military leaders have always had a hand in guiding and making foreign policy, but compared to the Bouteflika era, the military in the New Algeria will now have the loudest voice in managing the country’s security, regional, and international portfolios. This is due to Tebboune’s temperament and his limited public profile abroad. The military will increasingly impose its view regarding the orientation of Algerian foreign policy, such as maintaining the strategic hostility with Morocco, engaging diplomatically in sub-Saharan African conflicts, preserving the status quo in the relationship with France, and pushing for more reliance on Russia as a strategic ally under the pretext of Moroccan-Israeli normalization.

Constitutional changes in 2020 allow the military to carry out security missions outside national borders, but the military will not fight a major war in the region in order to avoid any direct military involvement and domestic opposition to Algerians fighting abroad. The military will carry out limited intelligence and combat missions, especially on the southern borders, such as monitoring and pursuing terrorist groups, smugglers, and international criminal groups. The military leadership will also work on more coordination with France, the most important power in the sub-Saharan African region, and will move cautiously within the framework of the African Union.

Protecting Corruption by Fighting It

The fight against corruption within the military will resemble what Dalia Ghanem calls "limiting change through change." That is, the fight can be made to shield corruption by focusing on illicit financial gains and economic privileges outside the legal framework regulating the salaries and benefits of military personnel. Algeria does not have an Egyptian-style military economy. In other words, it does not create wealth through social and military business in cooperation with civilians, investing resources in projects that make the military a competitor with civilians in the marketplace. Algeria’s military industry is limited, depending on foreign partners and state budgets, providing fewer avenues for corruption than in Egypt. The rentier nature of Algeria’s oil-and-gas-based economy, which provides high budgets for defense with no parliamentary accountability or media investigation, prevents the development of an Algerian military economy model like Egypt’s.

In such a rentier economy, military leaders find other ways to obtain parallel benefits. To begin with, the civilian state bureaucracy is a source of privileges and income. At the national level, military elites negotiate with national ministers and general managers to benefit their real estate ventures, reduce tax liability, facilitate business, and ease bureaucratic restrictions. Through family businesses, military elites also win national tenders and strike agreements with the defense and other ministries. At the regional level, a network of interests forms between influential military figures and governors, in which regional military leaders and traditional civilian regime elites (often belonging to the ruling party) play a central role. Finally, at the local level, mutually beneficial corruption networks form between mayors, general secretaries of municipalities, and lower-echelon military officers such as leaders of the National Gendarmerie (police forces affiliated with the Ministry of National Defense).

Outside the official state bureaucracy, the military insinuates its way into the parallel economy, especially in border areas (Tunisia and Libya in the east, Morocco and Mauritania in the west, and Mali and Niger in the south). For instance, smuggling operations cover a wide range of activities and commodities, from foodstuffs and gasoline to drugs and gold. In the deep interior, where police forces affiliated with the Ministry of the Interior have no access, regional military leaders and their representatives create networks of corruption with smugglers that take two main forms: cooperating with smugglers to facilitate their passage in exchange for commissions and acquiring materials confiscated by the military and turning them into the personal property of influential figures in smuggling areas.

At a time when some believe that the architects of the New Algeria will eradicate corruption, it seems more accurate to say that they are identifying and removing one corrupt generation to allow a new corrupt generation to rise, disguised behind the legitimacy of a popular movement, with protesters calling for the elimination of what they call the gang. Traditionally, the DRS was responsible for corruption cases among military elites. Both the intelligence service and the presidency used these cases to extract concessions from military elites, by dismissing their colleagues or pushing them to accept retirement. Given the intelligence service’s relocation to the Ministry of National Defense, the weakness of the presidency and parliament, and restrictions imposed on the media, corruption will continue to be a method of personal enrichment for military elites, who can exploit their influence and avoid the accountability of democratic institutions.

Decline in Political Confidence in the Military

In times of stability the question of confidence is not of importance to the military. However, another outburst by the Hirak would push military leaders to rebuild bridges of confidence with the political class, on one hand, and the angry masses, on the other. Military leaders presented themselves during the February movement as arbiters in the struggle over political power, supporting the demands of the street. The military enjoyed the confidence of political parties and temporarily the confidence of protesters, which enabled it to push Bouteflika to resign in April 2019.