Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned to Algiers on July 16 after three months in a hospital in Paris. His health will prevent him from running for reelection in April, and it’s unclear whether he can run the country until then. As a result, the contest over his succession is already gearing up, and the Islamists are first out of the starting blocks. The United States and the European Union—along with China, a major presence in energy-rich Algeria—are closely monitoring this latest round in the continuing struggle over the Islamists’ role in government and society.
Bouteflika is widely seen as the counter to the Islamists. In office since 1999 and reelected in 2009 with a Soviet-style 90 percent of the vote, he presided over the end of the bloody civil war unleashed by a military coup after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won parliamentary elections in December 1991. The war killed as many as 200,000 people. Though the Islamists suffered a military defeat, the creeping Islamization of Algerian society has proceeded apace.
Oddly enough, the regime has regarded this trend with complacency. It has even courted conservative Muslim Brothers and named a prime minister sympathetic to the Islamists, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who served from 2006 to 2008. Belkhadem closed down outlets selling alcoholic beverages, condemned those who broke the fast during Ramadan, hunted illicit couples, and supported restaurants that refused to serve unescorted females. He even called the Koran “the only constitution of Algerian society,” echoing the motto of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now, in the hope of a political comeback, the three main Islamist parties have united in a “Green Alliance” around a single presidential candidate. While some regard these groups as “Islamist in name only” because they are participating in the political process and are somewhat close to the elite, the powers that be are not ready to allow their candidate to become president.
The more dangerous Islamists are sitting out the election. They include the FIS and Salafist groups that do not control a large number of mosques around the country. Abassi Madani, a founder of the FIS who was imprisoned, then under house arrest, from 1991 to 2003, is stirring the pot from Qatar, where the emir gives him a monthly stipend of $15,000. Madani is calling for the legalization of the FIS. This probably won’t happen, but agitating for it allows him to present himself as a victim of an anti-Muslim dictatorship.
Most likely, the army and the old guard will choose the next president. In an attempt to quell the anger of the street, the regime dispenses largesse. In 2011, for example, it provided some $23 billion in public grants and retroactive salary and benefit increases for public workers.
After the In Amenas terrorist attack in January—when al Qaeda-linked militants took some 800 workers and others hostage at a remote gas facility near the Tunisian border and some 70 people were killed before Algerian security forces had retaken the plant—Western governments realized that they needed to act to protect their interests in Algeria. This was even truer for China, which has a huge stake in Algeria’s future.
In recent years, China has reaped the benefits of ties to Africa dating back to Mao’s support for anti-colonial revolutionary movements in the middle of the last century. And Algeria hosts what may be the largest Chinese community on the continent, estimated at up to 100,000 people. According to the daily El Khabar, 567 Chinese-owned companies now operate in Algeria. While Chinese have invested in many sectors of the economy, construction surpasses them all: Close to $15 billion in construction contracts has been awarded to Chinese firms since 2000. Under a single contract for the construction of a huge mosque in Algiers, the China State Construction Engineering Corporation required that at least 10,000 workers be flown in from China.
The relationship also entails military cooperation. Algeria has commissioned the China Shipbuilding Trading Company to supply three light frigates, and in April for the first time, the Chinese fleet docked at an Algerian port and the two countries’ navies took part in joint exercises.
The Chinese “invasion” has come at a cost. Anti-Chinese sentiment is common, and riots have targeted Chinese nationals; in 2009, dozens were injured and Chinese shops were looted in Algiers. In addition, some Algerians see China as anti-Muslim because of its harsh treatment of its Muslim Uighur community; Islamist parties have lodged protests with the Chinese embassy. Even Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the main terror outfit in the region, has warned China about potential attacks on its interests and citizens. Already in 2009, AQIM ambushed a convoy of Chinese workers being escorted to a job site 100 miles southeast of Algiers, and at least 24 police officers and one civilian were killed.
For the time being, Beijing has asked Algerian authorities to protect its nationals from both terrorism and rioting. But especially if Islamist influence continues to grow, it would be surprising if China did not also increase its own ability to project force in the region in the interests of its citizens and investments. That too is a development the West should be watching.
Olivier Guitta is the director of research at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign affairs think tank in London. Hugo Brennan assisted in the research for this article.