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Government Reshuffle in Algeria: Changes in Continuity

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image New energy minister Yousfi (left) and Ould Kablia (right) as interior minister

For many, the change in leadership in Algeria's oil bureaucracy was long overdue. Political pundits have been expecting the sacking of energy minister Chekib Khelil since early 2009 when Abdelaziz Bouteflika renewed his mandate for President for a third term. For others, while expecting Khelil to get somewhat hit by the political tsunami generated by the corruption scandal that has rocked oil giant Sonatrach, they saw him as "the only international statesman Algeria had" due to his dense connections with Western decision makers in governments and businesses. This scandal, which has cost the job of the then Sonatrach CEO, Mohamed Meziane, and forced a substantial reshuffle of the company's executive management, ultimately brought down the powerful minister himself. At the end though, not too many were surprised as changes were expected a while ago. Some observers note that while the sacking of Khelil is analyzed as a bad outcome for the powerful Minister, his exit could indeed be interpreted as a blessing in disguise. Khelil's timely exit means that he will likely remain unaccountable for his questionable contribution in managing Algeria's assets and finances, amid scandals affecting the energy sector.

Yet, what was more intriguing was the removal of Interior Minister Nourredine Zerhouni. Also intriguing was the maintaining of public works Minister, Amar Ghoul, a figure who has been implicated in corruption investigations related to East-West expressway contracts. The fisheries minister, also implicated in alleged wrongdoings in procurement contracts and expected to be ousted, was given another ministerial portfolio instead.

In the cases of the removal of Zerhouni from Interior and Khelil from Energy, the two men were so unpopular that they have become liabilities. Yet, their replacements hint on efforts from the part of the governing system to maintain itself, focus on continuity and avoid disruption, despite all the internal infightings we hear of. Zerhouni and Khelil's replacements have always been part of the Algerian political structure and will undoubtedly continue to govern without challenging the established practices.

All of these maneuvers symbolize the nature of Algerian politics. One that emphasizes the political battle that the conservatives and the progressive branch of power tend to continuously wage against one another. It is also about the rift between President Bouteflika and those in the military leadership he tried to sideline and remove from politics. It is certainly a battle between international corporate interests, oil companies in particular, and those in Algeria who are seeking tighter control of the national resources. At the end of the analysis, it is a series of events and factors that has led to the end of the Khelil era.

The announcement of a change in oil and gas leadership in Algeria carries an international dimension as well. It is coming at a moment when Algeria and France are attempting to renew dialogue after months of bickering over a host of topics, including the role of France as a colonial power. The resumption of a dialogue between the two, albeit at the very symbolic level, occurred during President Bouteflika's long awaited visit to France. Bouteflika went to the French resort city of Nice to take part to the 'Afrique-France' summit, an event hosted by French President Sarkozy, with the gathering of 38 African heads of state.

The sacking of Khelil came officially as an announced 'cabinet reshuffle.' The change, as far as the whole cabinet is concerned, was minimal yet the leadership of Algeria's security and economic policy in government has been the most affected, starting with the oil and gas minister, and including commerce, industry, and finally the Interior Ministry as well.

While Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia kept his job, the notable change was the re-assignment of head of security and Minister of the Interior Nourredine Zerhouni to the post of Deputy Prime Minister. Dahou Ould Kablia, who reported to Zerhouni will now lead the country's security system as Interior Minister.

In this event, Zerhouni will remain in government but with an honorary and powerless job. He will not be able to make direct decision on affairs critical to Algeria. This is in sharp contrast to what he is used to. As Minister, he was responsible for overseeing the roles of state functionaries. He was in charge of all the nation's police and security apparatus. As Interior Minister, he had direct jurisdiction over the political parties, territorial management, NGO's and many other strategic areas. In his new assignment, Zerhouni's tasks are not easily identifiable. Although mentioned in the Algerian constitution through article 77, the position has no specific tasks assigned to it. Indeed this will be the first time that a Deputy PM is actually assigned to an official. Perhaps, if Zerhouni is not fully confined by his illness, he may have the opportunity to shape the role of the Deputy PM. Otherwise, his tenure there will be of symbolic nature. What will be interesting to watch is the dynamics and relationship that will emerge between Zerhouni and his official boss, PM Ahmed Ouyahia. Both men belong to different schools of thoughts and their personalities could clash, if Zerhouni finds enough energy to wage the political battle.

Somewhat of a demotion is the change affecting Industry and Investment Promotion Minister Abdelhamid Temmar, who is now in charge of a the less strategic Ministry of Statistics and Projections. Although the move is considered as a step down, he is expected to remain a key player in industrial policymaking. Also sacked was Hachemi Djaaboub, who was replaced at the Ministry of Commerce by Mustapha Benbada.

But the magnitude of the change came in form of a sacking of the powerful oil Minister Khelil, who was replaced by former oil minister Youcef Yousfi. Yousfi is a highly skilled oil professional and a savvy politician. His academic credentials include post-graduate degrees in science and economics. His professional career boasts an impressive list of achievements from academic teaching, to technical adviser to the Algerian energy ministry, to being appointed to executive positions at oil company Sonatrach, culminating to a CEO appointment in the mid 1980s. He is also known for his government career, starting with his appointment in the mid-1990s as chief of staff to the then President, Liamine Zeroual, before taking over the ministry of energy in 1997. His political maneuvering in the governing elite of Algeria allowed him to expand to become Foreign Minister in late 1999, before moving to a more junior role as Minister-Delegate to the Prime Minister in summer 2000 amid political infighting between the conservatives and the economic liberals in the regime. In 2001, Yousfi he was appointed Ambassador for Algeria to Canada, and then in 2006 Ambassador to the United Nations.

While not so known from the general public, Daho Ould Kablia has been active in politics and government affairs, with focus on security issues. Before this latest appointment, he held a senior position at the Interior ministry, essentially acting as the top-deputy to Minister Zerhouni. His role and responsibilities expanded over the past years as Zerhouni had to focus on an illness that led him to a French hospital in Val de Grace.

Born in Tangier, Morocco in 1933, Ould Kablia is believed to be part of a political group often referred to as the Oujda Clan. The Oujda Clan was an implicit association of political militants and military leaders of the National Liberation Front formed in the Moroccan town of Oujda during the Algerian war of independence and active until the late 1960s. At its central core was the late Algerian president Houari Boumediene. When he became President, Boumediene is said to have appointed members of the Oujda Clan in leadership, government and security posts. Their positions are generally conservative, positioning them squarely against the liberal and progressive branches of the regime. This led to numerous confrontations of political nature with various purges against the Oujda Clan, the most notable one was during the Chadli Bendjedid era in the late 1980s.

Also born in Oujda, Morocco was the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Bouteflika is also know for being part of the Oujda Clan. He was Boumediene's foreign minister. Hence the appointment of Ould Kablia as Interior Minister is another indication of the resilience of the Oujda Clan in Algeria politics.

Ould Kablia has had a long career in government bureaucracy. He knows the regions and provinces very well, having spent a great deal of his professional life as Wali or Provincial Governor. He is a man of staus quo and the pro-Berber movement is likely to find it difficult to find common grounds with him. He is known for his involvement in the negotiations with the Berber Kabyles' elders and representatives called Arouchs, as the Kabyles were looking for further ethnic and cultural recognition. Their demands were never fully met and so the Berber question continues to linger.

Outside of Algeria, he has had his share of regional and international exposure. He represented Algeria in Euro-North African security summits and has been involved in Maghreb security issues.

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