Police strikes have erupted in Algeria over tough working conditions, and demonstrators are demanding the removal of corrupt security officials. But while many of their demands are echoed by other workers within the security sector, they are unlikely to bring about genuine change. Internal divisions and vested interests stand in the way of any serious security sector reforms that would alienate sector elites. However, short of significant reforms, the government remains vulnerable to further unrest if it continues to ignore police demands.
On October 13 and 14, police officers in Algeria’s southern oasis city of Ghardaia went on strike to protest low salaries and nepostism—not just within their respective deparments but throughout the Ministry of Interior. This came in the wake of increased civilian hostility against the police after two people were killed and a policeman injured in the latest of a series of clashes between the local Arab and Ibadi Berber communities. Although the police in Ghardaia resumed their work on October 14, their colleagues in Algiers have been demonstrating in solidarity. The same day, around 300 policemen marched and tried to reach the presidential palace where Bouteflika dwells. They called for the establishment of a police union and the removal from office of Director-General of National Security General Abdelghani Hamel, an ally of President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, on allegations of corruption and the abuse of power.
Although these protests were small and have diminished to some extent, the anger has spread to other security sector workers, especially the firefighters, who like the police are overseen by the pro-Bouteflika Ministry of Interior. Customs officials, some military units, and even the staffers for the Constitutional Council have also joined the police protests. Their calls range from improving work conditions to political demands such as the ouster of General Hamel.
Although the Bouteflika government responded to the immediate economic and professional demands of the police force, it ignored the fundamental and more political requests. The government agreed to grant security forces (including police, gendarmerie, military personnel, and firefighters) large retroactive salaries increases and access to new and affordable housing. Other demands, including the removal of General Hamel, however, have gone unnaddressed. The government has thus sought to deter further uprisings by dismissing several local police chiefs accused of orchestrating the rebellion.
The ongoing issue with the police is symptomatic of Algeria’s interminable power struggle between the presidency, the army, and the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS). Bouteflika’s faction in government has made a series of reforms—including decree 14-183 and other shake-ups before it—aimed at restricting the DRS and the army’s influence in politics. This power struggle prevents any fundamental reforms that could address the security forces’ underlying demands. In the event that Bouteflika—or Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, who has taken over most duties from the ailing president—does want to negotiate with protesters and reach an agreement on the establishment of a police union and the removal of corrupt officials, the DRS would likely fight back against such measures.
Given recent tension between the DRS and Bouteflika, the latter and his associates have little room to upset the DRS, as they have already expended great political capital on instituting DRS reforms. The DRS pressured Bouteflika’s camp, threatening to leak files proving bribery and corruption among his allies, and the Bouteflika wing responded with their own threats about exposing files incriminating DRS. This divide limits the government’s ability and interest in pursing meaningful security sector reforms without worsening preexisting rifts. The Algerian regime has built its power and influence on the strength and loyalty of security institutions including the police, which is why it has expended an incredible amount of money and privilege addressing their requests.
With an ailing president, an unclear succession plan, and a range of demographic and social pressures, police riots and protests appear to be a secondary concern to the Bouteflika government. By throwing money at the issue, it hopes to buy time to work through internal divisions and restructure before police protests resurface. But this short-sighted solution is highlighing the government’s vulnerability and its lack of legitimacy among Algerian people. Without real reform, then, the next riot will be much harder for the government to contain.
Abdallah Brahimi is an alumni fellow of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and a freelance consultant for Algerian NGOs.