The power of self-submission in Algeria: when the bureaucracy becomes an enemy to public interest

Bouteflika’s victory in last presidential elections in Algeria has raised many questions and criticisms. Despite the disputes between the secret intelligence division (DRS) and the presidential camp, he succeeded to win the last elections for another mandate1. Moreover, the boycott of opposition did not have a real impact on the organization of these elections nor did it bring a collective reaction from the society. Despite the fact that most media have announced that the elections were not transparent, we cannot deny that a considerable masses gave their votes to the presidential party. Even the protestations that had been organized under “Barakat” movement (“enough”), had not received a very large support.2 In many cities such as Jijel, Djelfa, Msila, Skikda, Oued Souf, the population refused to participate in the marches and protestations organized by the movement.

Instead, a number of groups did organize micro-level contestations to obtain short-term demands rather than trying to coordinate a larger social movement to bring down the present kleptocracy. The emergence of these micro-level manifestations could be understood in two different ways: on the one hand, it is a symptom of the absence of national solidarity and the manifestation of an easy manipulation by opportunistic political parties or secret services, on the other hand; it might well be an indicator of the social domestication of protest.3

Obviously, the political system in Algeria gets its power from the “blind submission” more than from the power of the security forces. Despite the successive announcements of scandalous corruption cases such as Khalifa (2007), Sonatrach (Schlumberger, Chakib Khelil), SNC Lavalin4, highway east-west (2009)5, which are a part of a long chain of corruption that have prevailed since independence, the public has not shown important reactions. Thus, Algeria is classified as a fragile “soft authoritarianism”, which derives its strength from the weakness of civil society and the quasi-absence of a collective action.

This implicit obedience and the absence of opposition have historical and structural grassroots. The most salient elements that should be focused in academic analyses are the impact of civil war memory on national trust and individual reaction toward political issues, the division between the army and the DRS, the decentralization of predation practices within the security apparatus, the reappearance of clan and regional disputes, the fragmentation of middle class, a dependent civil society, the prevalence of social clientelism.

Each variable represents a subject to study and needs further research. However, it is believed that the last element has more explanative power. It explains why the citizen becomes a client, and corruption becomes a norm, and the worker unions or student organizations become intelligence services, and the elected president becomes a monarch.

Since the conciliation in 1998, the system has succeeded to socialize predation practices and consolidate its clientelist strategy. The socialization process takes different forms and it is achieved through various institutions and mechanisms: growth of public administration, electoral campaigns, social programs for assistance and loans, large projects of construction. The expanded corrupt bureaucracy is the most important mechanism of this process, for two reasons: the statism ideology of Algerian political system, even after the announcement of political pluralism, and the remarkable expansion of bureaucracy since the arrival to power of Bouteflika.

Many scholars argue that the reliance of Algerian system on the bureaucracy to legitimize the system is not a new phenomenon, it has been generalized since Boumédiene system, in the 1970’s, and lasts until today. Indeed, the previous statement could not be denied, however, there is a great difference between the role of bureaucracy and the role of civil servants within the political feed-back of both regimes. Boumédiene system developed a dependent civil servant but Bouteflika system develops an “engaged client”. In the first example, the public function was established to neutralize the citizen from political cleavages and, in the second example, the public function is oriented to implicate the individuals in a large prebendal system. In such a context, public function has acquired a new identity, which favors greedy servants and entrenched clientelist networks and opportunistic tendency.

Throughout a decade, the government developed an unresponsive public administration and ineffective bureaucracy, which enforces the state regulation and implements rentier development plans. All political coalitions and groups have developed determined efforts to capture the state apparatus, in order to use the state’s redistributive powers to amass wealth for themselves. While the appointment decisions of civil servants are not based on merit or qualifications, senior positions have been awarded only to the loyal clients or candidates that don’t threat the political interests of dominant groups.

On top of this bureaucracy is founded the bureaucratic bourgeoisie that is heavily dependent to the rent revenues: top holder officers in different administrations, university professors and secondary school teachers, religion and costmary leaders. At the bottom are the most vulnerable segments that depend to the public employment programs that have been introduced by the system since the beginning of the Tunisian revolt, in order to prevent a potential protestation. These programs have been suspended in the last few months, because of the declining of oil revenues.

Both categories are independent, vulnerable, volatile and insecure, however, the first one has the prominent role in the redistribution machinery, because it keeps the functioning of corruption vicious cycle. It could be considered as a “buffer class”. The term is rich in connotations; it refers above all to a status of group, and not to an economic category. The critical feature of this group lies in its dependency upon the state as the source of its social standing, and its use of the political power or connections to the state for expanding its role into the economic sphere. Most of their members do not participate efficiently in political change to keep their social advantages. Instead, they use their positons to convert their remuneration into capital accumulation through investment in commerce. Such activities include the acquisition of urban land titles, construction of houses, and import-export business.

Bureaucratic bourgeoisie’s attempts to maximize the benefits by lobbying lawmakers and politicians, and providing services to interest groups that seek favors from the government, have two main consequences: on the one hand, it raises the prize of public function, on the other hand, it routinizes the bureaucratic corruption. This last consequence has multiple forms: commissions for illicit services, unwarranted fees for public services, required gratuities, string-pulling, tributes and tolls, misappropriations. These practices can be punctual, dyadic, and regular. In many structures such as university, secondary school, municipal, court of justice, illegal rent-seeking behavior becomes an obligation to access to the civil services.

Paradoxically, the scandalous corruption of the elite that have recently been announced by the media have reinforced previous malpractices. Through personal interviews I had with many university teachers from the country and high rank civil servants, I have realized that the weakness of society and state in Algeria does not lie in the system functioning, but rather in the individual’s perception of his role and his surrounded context. Most interviewed members believe that they had the right to steal because all the system is stealing, and that what they take represents a little part of the national wealth. Also, their practices are not dependent to their social needs or the low level of remuneration, they are the result of personal greed.

Moreover, the fluidity and insecurity which characterize the political system and patron-client networks create a constant tension between the status aspirations and economic security needs of greedy civil servants, and encourage them to predate the public resources and abuse the power for self-enrichment. For them, long term security has been best assured by transferring assets abroad, and by investing large sums from the national budget in educating children in Europe and Canada, at the expense of citizens and national development.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning Pr. Abdel Rahmane Mebtoul’s famous expression “Bureaucratic Terrorism6. The expression could be considered as an exaggeration or an overstatement. Although, in a country where the public services strategies, which are based on the regional and clan criteria, led to the frequent abuse of women, strengthen internal divisions and violent responses within the community, where administration becomes an instrument to strip the individual not only from his citizenship but from his humanity, the civil servant could be considered as a terrorist.

The most important question, which is still open, is: What is the effect of oil declining prices on such bureaucracy. To put it clearly, will the collapse of this bureaucratic power lead to the cohesion of middle class segments or will it encourage the extremist tendency?

Faouzia Zeraoulia (University of Jijel, Algeria)

Associate Researcher LAM

  1. Thierry Oberlé, « Algérie : le clan Bouteflika vise le chef des «services» », Le Figaro, 04/02/2014, http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2014/02/04/01003-20140204ARTFIG00392-algerie-le-clan-bouteflika-vise- le- chef-des-services.php. []
  2. Catherine Gouëset , « Barakat: le mouvement anti-Bouteflika peut-il s’étendre en Algérie? », L’express, 07/04/ 2014 ; http://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/monde/afrique/barakat-le-mouvement-anti-bouteflika-peut-il-s-etendre-en-algerie_1506636.html. []
  3. The most Violent Micro-protestations were in Ghardia since 2013 and Ain Saleh in November and December 2014. []
  4. Enquête ; SNC LAVALIN Service secret L’envers du tableau, ajoutée le 27 octobre 2013 ; https://www.youtube .com/watch?v=h-8R4ZShcGc. []
  5. Farid Alilat, « Algérie: lourdes condamnations dans l’affaire de l’autoroute Est-Ouest », 07/05/2015, http://www.jeuneafrique.com/230791/economie/algerie-lourdes-condamnations-dans-laffaire-de-lautoroute-est-ouest/ []
  6. « Algérie : mauvaise gouvernance, non-droit et bureaucratie », Le Matin Algérie, 22/07/2012, http://www.lemaghrebdz.com/?page=detail_actualite&rubrique=Nation&id=12803. []

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