By the end of the year, the situation has grown more tense. This is particularly true of Algeria which will undergo a change in supreme leadership. The current president is ill, his surrounding and political elites are in a state of uncertainty, the new configuration of alliances is difficult of predict. The situation is no less fluid in Tunisia due to the conflict among party blocs, and Libya where attempts to resolve the conflict have been failing irrespective which external actors are backing these efforts.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika could not receive Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman Al Saud due to a persistent cold, which was reported by Reuters citing the presidential chancellery. The Crown Prince came to Algeria from Mauritania and before that from Argentina, where he took part in G-20 summit. The president feels so poorly that he may not run in the next election. This led the government to start negotiations with a range of political actors from the structural opposition. The proposal to postpone elections until April 2019 so far has not been approved by Bouteflika’s entourage, though it was agreed upon by some of its members including a leading figure in the presidential alliance Amar Gul, and an opposition representative Abderazak Makri.
The presidential plan headed by the Said brothers and Abderagim Bouteflika waits for the doctors’ report, but it has been forced to approve consultations. President’s inner circle decided in favor of a fifth term and so far as not abandoned this option. But the president’s health has worsened so much that he can’t appear at the Constitutional Council in order to register his candidacy, as demanded by law. The situation is made more complicated by the absence of a successor from the ruling party. The National Liberation Front (NLF) General Secretary Jamel uld Abbas has been in retirement due to health problems. The acting NLF head is Muaz Bushareb, who in late October became the new chairman of the People’s National Assembly, the lower chamber of Algeria’s legislature.
The idea of establishing a vice-presidency was rejected since it would require changing the constitution, which took five years the last time it happened. Said Bouteflike has eliminated potential competitors for the post of presidency in the last three years, including the former PM Abdelmalek Sellal and the police head Abdelgani Hamel. Their dismissals were foreordained already in 2016 due to the president’s brothers suspecting them of leaking compromising photos demonstrating the president’s incapacity which were published on Twitter by the former French PM Manuel Valls. The current PM Akhmed Uakhya is also a suspect in that plot, though he’s retained his post due to his rejection of presidential ambitions.
The name of the former oil minister Shakib Helil is tied to the SAIPEM-Sonatrach corruption case, though he officially is not under investigation and has no international arrest warrant issued, so he was allowed to return to Algeria from the US two years ago. At the time, the president’s brothers did that to minimize the influence of the supporters of the fallen Algerian secret services chief, General Medien. Helil could not guarantee the support by the leadership of the two most powerful religious brotherhoods of the country, Si M’Khamed Ben Merzug Zavia in Jelfe, and Sidi-Mahiddin Zavia in Masqar. This is a key condition for achieving important state positions. It is also important because when Abdelaziz Bouteflika opted for the fourth term, his emissaries led serious negotiations with these brotherhoods.
On December 5, President Beji Kaid Essebsli extended the state of emergency for another month. On November 24, 2015, there was an explosion in Tunisia’s capital close to the ministries of internal affairs and tourism, killing 13 and wounding 20. On the same day the state of emergency was reintroduced for 30 days for the first time since November 6, 2018. The responsibility for the attack was taken by the Islamic State.
There is a struggle in Tunisia between the president and his “Tunisia Summons” party and the PM Yusef Shekhed and his current ally (earlier a partner in the presidential coalition), the Islamic “An-Nakhda”. The conflict peaked when the Carthage Agreement, the foundation of the parliamentary coalition between the two parties, was broken in September.
On September 24, Essebsi and An-Nakhda leader Rashid Gannushi officially broke off the parliamentary alliance which existed since 2016. There is a power shuffle in the top legislative body, the Tunisia Summons is examining the likelihood of its transition into opposition in order to unify secular parties against An-Nakhda. The period of unity among secular and Islamic development paths, which was characterized by analysts as the ideal model for civil coexistence, has ended. Islamists entered into an alliance with Yusef Shakhed.
The focus of the struggle is who will become the next president. Shakhed sees himself on this post, while Essebsi is promoting his son. Islamist support ensures the PM has considerable political stability. He won an important round and escaped a non-confidence vote insisted upon since last September by the president and his party. Shakhed won over the islamists by offering them several key posts in his government, including Internal Affairs, Education, and five General Secretaries in various agencies.
The president and his son Khafed were not able to offer anything comparable during summer negotiations with An-Nakhda. As a result, the Assembly expressed confidence in the new government members proposed by the Prime Minister.
Attempts by Tunisia Summons leaders, including parliamentary bloc head Sofian Tubel, General Secretary Slim Riyakhi, and political committee chair Khafed Kaid Essesbi, to compel deputies to vote against expressing confidence in the new nominees had failed. In order to arrest negative trends, there was an effort to mobilize labor unions and organize strikes to force the government’s dismissal under the pretext of “unacceptable conditions for the new IMF tranche”. Some 400 thousand participated in the demonstrations but without result. Neither Shakhed nor the president offered alternatives to IMF conditions. Moreover, it is risky for both sides to antagonize the IMF. The new round of struggle has begun, in which the main event will be the PM’s and his supporters’ trial on charges of treason.
The plot for his dubious, from the democratic point of view, process is being advanced in Paris by the new Tunisia Summons General Secretary Slim Riyakhi. He is conducting consultations in the French capital, informing the president and his son of any progress. Partners include one of the leading businessmen, Nessma TV owner Nabilya Karaui and Ben Ali’s former “eminence grise” Kamel el-Taef. The former president’s inner circle is clearly attempting to win media support and the backing by the adherents of the last autocratic leader of Tunisia.
For his part, Tunisia Summons new GS is trying to scare Paris with the prospect of renewed “Islamic dictatorship”. But the timing is poor: French leaders are more concerned about domestic problems, particularly the Yellow Vests demonstrations. Riyakhi plans to return to Tunis in order to appear as the key witness at the military tribunal and accuse Shakhed and his advisors of a plot to undermine the country’s “internal stability”.
Military judges on December 8 invited Riyakha’s lawyers to appear. Charges were initially filed against Rauf Mradaa, the head of president’s security service, but he was vindicated by the head of state.
At the tribunal, Riyakha plans to reveal recordings of conversations among a group of deputies supporting Shakhed, where they discuss reducing the presidential term due to medical problems. This plan was acknowledged by the “plotters” themselves as unpromising. It seemed overly similar to the “medical” coup carried out by Ben Ali against Khabig Burgiba in 1987.
PM’s alliance is weakening. Parliament members supporting him as part of the National Bloc announced creation of a new party. The coalition government which emerged from the November 5 reshuffle is experiencing trouble. On November 16, representatives of parties forming the Cabinet secretly met with Shakhed at the Carthage Palace in Dar-Diaf. During the meeting, An-Nakhda parliamentary leader Nureddine Bkhiri offered to renew coordination mechanism among ruling majority parties similar to what existed before the schism between the PM and Tunisia Summons.
This proposal was supported by the Al-Mubadara party represented at the meeting by the Vice-President and new Civil Service Minister Mukhammed Gariani. But Mohsen Marzouk, the head of Machrou Tounes party, vetoed it. This was the first sign of tensions within the pro-PM alliance and the government on the even fo elections. PM’s advisors suspect Marzouk to be the president’s “Trojan horse”, for he was the president’s closest advisor for many years. According to other reports, Marzouk may deploy the option of returning to Tunisia Summons as its leader, given the diminishing likelihood of the president’s son becoming the new president.
Concerning Al-Mubadara, its leader Minister of Defense Kamel Morjan intends to run for president. He is counting on the support of the Sahel region elites in the eastern part of Tunisia where he is the leading figure. An-Nahda, which plays a crucial role in Shakhed’s political survival, is hesitating. Faithful to the usual Muslim Brotherhood tactic, it does not want to govern alone and prefers to be part of a ruling alliance. Rashid Gannushi believes Shakhed will surpass Essebsi becoming the new president, but he is worried by the PM’s influence due to his high ratings and better than expected tactical skills.
The collapse of Tunisia Summons stimulated the ambitions of political heavyweights considering themselves potential leaders of the “modernist” secular movement. They include the former PM Khamed Karui. On November 24, he invited about 50 people to a hotel in Tunis to unite the supporters of Ben Ali and the Dustur party who have nostalgia for the Burgiba era.
Karui hopes to capitalize on his Sahel background in order to gain the support of local clans who used to be the main pillar of Bourgiba’s power. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs Taieb Bakhoush is also attempting to create own party. But their electoral weight is small, and the efforts to create alliances appear to be a reflection of the desire participate in the distribution of future government posts irrespective of who wins.
The Humanitarian Dialogue Center organized on December 6 a conference in Tabarka (Tunisia) with the participation of representatives of Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica, in order to prepare ground for a national conference on overcoming the crisis. This conference has been requested by the UN emissary to Libya Hasan Salame. The only outcome was a general consensus that the conference could be held in Sirte in early February 2019.
No consensus was reached on the agenda. On December 11, the head of the State Council and representative of the Misurata clans Khaled al-Mishri rejected amendments to the proposed law on referendums and to the Constitutional Declaration, although he earlier promised the Chamber of Representatives speaker in Tobruk Akila Salah Issa to approve them. The Chamber of Representatives-approved referendum law for adopting a permanent constitution was sent to the Supreme Electoral Commission on November 29. Deputies of the Tobruk-based parliament adopted it after the Constitutional Declaration was amended in order to avoid contradicting the law.
Thanks to this legal framework, the road to a referendum on a new draft constitution and presidential and parliamentary elections is now open. After that, the Libyan Electoral Committee will have the right to set the referendum date. But now everything depends on al-Mishri’s decisions. Amendments to the Constitutional Declaration adopted by the parliament on November 26 made an early dismissal of the Presidential Council chair and the Tripoli government Prime Minister Faiz Saraj possible. That was the view of parliament head Issa and State Council chair al-Mishri. They wanted to reduce State Council from 9 to 3 members (one each from the western, eastern, and southern part of the country) and separate the role of the chair (wanted by Issa) from the Prime Minister functions.
They were unable to reach agreement on this issue until the November 12 Palermo Conference, where they initially planned to propose this plan. Extending Saraj’s term of office by the UN special emissary Hasan Salame and the meeting between Saraj and the LNA Supreme Commander Khalifa Khaftar moved them to agree. Al-Mishra’s refusal to support the plan allowed him to preserve control over the Presidential Council which will nominate the Prime Minister. Muslim Brotherhood, whose member al-Mishra remains, hope that blocking the amendment procedure will automatically cause the elections which the UN Special Emissary hopes to hold in 2019 to be cancelled. Issa will attempt to torpedo this scheme, as he himself would like to head up the new Presidential Council.
The Tobruk Chamber of Representatives has become an arena of struggle among deputy factions concerning the future PC composition. A majority faction headed by Abdel Salam Nassia, the head of the Political Dialogue committee, hopes to have the PC headed by a representative of the Fezzan to avoid competition between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Abderrakhman Shalgam was offered up as a compromise figure, since he worked as a Minister of Foreign Affairs under Moammar Khaddafi between 2000 and 2009. The Muslim Brotherhood is not alone in hoping to have the elections canceled. Most of the parliamentary deputies are in favor of simple governmental reshuffles and reducing the number of PC members. So do Faiz Saraj and Khalifa Khaftar…
The Palermo Conference has not brought progress toward peace in Libya. Although Salame threatened to replace Saraj’s PC with a new national council, Saraj was nevertheless confirmed as the PM until the 2019 elections. Under French and Italian pressure, Khaftar agreed to this. But the proposal concerned armed forces reunification which was launched a year ago was adopted at Palermo.
There are differences of opinion on the timing of elections. Libyans and their sponsors are in favor of preserving the current status, which runs against the UN’s and Brussels’ position. Cairo and UAE are hinting at UAE’s, Turkey’s, EU’s, and UN’s negative influence. APE’s efforts to create a unified Libyan army (the latest attempt took place in November) have failed. Nobody reacted to the invitation sent to Fezzan field commanders to merge with the LNA. LNA cannot extend its control to Tripolitania and it is struggling to keep the oil fields working continuously.
UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) called on Libyan militias to abandon the Esh-Sharara oil field to the south-east of Tripoli which they captured on December 8. The organization announced that due to its closure, oil production will fall by 388 thousand barrels per day, costing Libya’s economy 32.5 billion dollars a day. The oil field was captured by a militia led by Ibrahim al-Jadran. LNA is unable to defeat it.