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Split down the Front
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 10 - 2003

Competition over the coming presidential elections has turned the Algerian political scene into a circus. Amira Howeidy joins the audience
Few, including Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika perhaps, could have predicted that his quiet and unassuming 59-year-old Prime Minister Ali Ben Flis and director of his 1999 presidential campaign would turn against him and become his opponent in the coming 2004 presidential elections. But Algerian politics are never predictable. And with competition over the coming elections in full swing seven months before the April vote, other players expected to enter the contest will certainly add to an already volatile political situation.
The showdown between Bouteflika and Ben Flis occured when the president sacked his prime minister last May-- two months after Ben Flis, who is secretary-general of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), canceled an item on the party's annual conference regarding Bouteflika's nomination for a second presidential term. The conference elected Ben Flis secretary-general for another five years and endorsed a new internal law that expands his authorities, such as holding extraordinary conferences when necessary.
Neither man revealed the reasons for Bouteflika's decision to fire Ben Flis, but press reports referred to "deep" differences over the president's political and economic reform policies which his prime minister felt were not serious or fast-paced enough.
Ben Flis's nomination for the presidency was announced last Friday, 3 October, in a surprise move. The FLN had intended to name its secretary-general as the party's official candidate for the elections during an extraordinary meeting scheduled for 4 October. But a speedy court order obtained by a recently formed "correctionists" (Tasheehyeen) wing of the FLN, led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdel-Aziz Belkhadem, banned the conference. Ben Flis seized the opportunity during a meeting of the party's central committee at the FLN's headquarters on 3 October, and 1,300 of the 1,500 present members nominated him in a 15-minute voting session.
On Monday, Belkhadem told reporters that he will contest the nomination in court. If Belkhadem wins, Ben Flis's nomination would be nullified. And even if Ben Flis appeals such a decision to the Constitutional Council, observers except his request to be denied by the council's head, Ahmed Bejawi, who is a Bouteflika appointee.
The sequence of events revealed another nasty battle over power. The independent press, for one, is accusing the president of abusing his power and authority for "personal gains". Not only is the FLN now divided between Ben Flis -- its elected secretary-general -- and the "correctionists" led by Bouteflika-loyalist Belkhadem, but the government itself is suffering from the conflict.
The FLN (led by Ben Flis), which swept the 2002 parliamentary elections, holds 203 out of 391 seats in parliament, allowing it to form a majority government. But Bouteflika reshuffled the cabinet last month as a result of the power struggle, sacking four FLN ministers loyal to Ben Flis. The party retaliated on 2 October when seven FLN ministers resigned immediately after a judge cancelled the party's 4 October extraordinary conference. Bouteflika replaced them on Saturday with another seven, including four FLN ministers from the "correctionist" camp.
The FLN ruled Algeria since its independence from France in 1962 until 1998 when violent demonstrations rocked the country in protest of the deteriorating economic situation. The constitution was modified in 1989 allowing for a multi-party system. Twenty political parties were licensed as a result, including the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which won the 1990 municipal elections. In 1991 the FIS won the first round of the parliamentary elections, which were scrapped by the army. Martial Law was declared as violent clashes erupted between the FIS's armed wing and the army. FIS leaders Abassi Madani and Ali Belhaj were arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison and their party declared illegal. As other armed groups joined the war, the situation spun out of control as bloody massacres -- targeting mainly civilians -- continued unabated for years. The violence in Algeria was particularly gruesome as its perpetrators included not only armed militants but some units of the army itself.
Although no one knows the number of victims, estimates five years ago put the figure at 100,000.
These events caused FLN's popularity to decline sharply as it was largely blamed for the state of corruption that weakened the economy and forced poverty and unemployment rates to rise. It was not until Bin Flis, a highly respected judge and human rights defender, was appointed secretary-general of the FLN in September 2001 that the party revived itself, winning the parliamentary and local elections in 2002.
Bin Flis was appointed presidential chief of staff, and held the post of prime minister since 2000 until Bouteflika sacked him last May.
The power struggle between the two men has alarmed the various political forces in Algeria. Louisa Hanoun, the Trotskyist Labour Party's spokeswoman, was quoted as saying that the conflict might prove to be very dangerous in its outcome, warning of possible interference from the military. But so far the army has remained quiet, possibly because it might not support Bouteflika after all, observers argue.
Controversy over the coming elections is far from over and it certainly will not be limited to the two men. For one thing, Bouteflika hasn't nominated himself yet, although the move is expected. More importantly, former Foreign Minister Ahmed Taleb Al-Ibrahimi, a powerful and highly respected figure in Algeria, is expected to announce his intention to contest the vote.
Beside the political power of the presidential candidates, many are waiting to see what these men will offer Algerians. Ironically, the FIS, which caused the FLN's demise in the 1991 elections, seems to be holding a winning card. Since the release of its two leaders last July the banned group seems to have revived its presence and impact in the Algerian street. Their release was immediately connected with Bouteflika's preparations for the coming elections. But recent statements by FIS leader Madani, who is currently in Malaysia, indicate that the banned party might not give their votes to Bouteflika. Sources close to Ben Flis recently said that he is willing to allow the banned group to return to politics again, but under a different name.
The other winning card is the army which has so far remained silent, but not absent from the ongoing conflict. But even if it chooses to remain in the barracks, the military's electoral power -- two million votes -- will surely be decisive in the presidential elections.


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