ALGIERS, Algeria – Nearly a week from regional elections, Algerians are less interested in the public vote than an intensifying behind-the-scenes power struggle — one that is playing out through a flurry of corruption probes.
Though ostensibly a democracy, Algeria is really ruled by a powerful president and a shadowy collection of military generals and intelligence chiefs, making figuring out who has real power a constant preoccupation.
Thursday's local elections, like last May's legislative ones, mean little to people who know that real power lies with officials that have been appointed, not elected.
Aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has said he will retire in April 2014 after three terms and 15 years in power, setting the stage for a wide open presidential contest for the first time in the country's history.
Voters expect to have little direct say in the outcome.
Like the rest of North Africa, Algeria was shaken by protests calling for reform in the wake of Tunisia's dramatic overthrow of its long-ruling dictator in January 2011.
But in this North African country of 35 million, the protests never truly caught fire and were crushed by a combination of ruthless security forces and public sector salary increases, as well as lingering fears of instability after a decade-long civil war in the 1990s that claimed more than 200,000 lives.
The stakes are high for the presidential elections for not only this oil-rich nation, but for the region as a whole: Algeria has the strongest military in North Africa and neighbors unstable Libya and even more fragile Mali, where al-Qaida appears to control much of the north.
When a new daily newspaper began printing stories last week about three prominent politicians with close ties to Bouteflika taking bribes, it was widely taken as an opening salvo ahead of the presidential polls.
"These revelations are directly related to current politics and the upcoming 2014 presidential elections," said Rachid Tlemcani, a politics professor at Algiers University. "Corruption has reached grotesque proportions in Algeria, but rather than being fought with the law, it is unfortunately used as a weapon by the different clans in the system fighting among themselves since the war for succession to Bouteflika has opened."
That fight involves control over billions of dollars.
Algeria is awash in oil and natural gas money and has foreign reserves of almost $200 billion. It has embarked on a string high profile infrastructure projects — and accusations are rife that foreign companies have been paying massive bribes to secure contracts. That has all contributed to Algeria's ranking of 112 out of 183 countries on Transparency International's 2011 corruption index.
The head of the ruling party, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the minister of public works, Amar Ghoul, and well as the minister of industry, Cherif Rahmani, have all been accused by Algerie News of taking bribes to influence bids for the $12 billion East-West highway project (won by a Chinese-Japanese consortium), the Algiers metro and an extension of the tramway.
Belkhaddem and Ghoul are both close to the 75-year-old Bouteflika and are seen as possible candidates for the 2014 elections.
While Ghoul, for his part, has denied the allegations, the other two have remained silent — as has the Ministry of Justice.
Noureddine Benissad, the president of the Algerian League to Defend Human Rights, expressed outrage over the ministry's lack of action. "The Ministry of Justice should order a judicial investigation," he said, lamenting the lack of independence of the ministry from the executive.
After his appointment in September, Bouteflika's new prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, like many Algerian leaders before him, promised to lead the fight against corruption. Yet just last week the daily El Watan also published a four page expose over the misuse of public funds, including fancy cars for ministers and the construction of new seaside villas for them from public money.
Algerie News has said it has confidential files in its possession and more corruption revelations are expected — suggesting it is being fed by the feared "Research and Security Department" or DRS, as the intelligence service is known.
The military and security services are meanwhile reportedly backing Ahmed Ouyahia for the presidency, a former prime minister and head of the other main party in the ruling coalition.
Ouyahia coexisted uneasily with Bouteflika for years, but after May's elections and the overwhelming victory of the president's National Liberation Front, he was not asked back as prime minister.
Members of his own party, the National Democratic Rally, have even criticized Ouyahia for using the party to further his presidential ambitions.
According to political expert Mohammed Said, the fact that the revelations involve two politicians close to the president could also be the military's way of warning Bouteflika against harboring any ideas of staying in power.
"It is a likely a warning shot to discourage him from running for a fourth term," he said.
The president, who is rumored to be ailing, had already said that he would not run again and just a week before the May parliamentary elections, he made a landmark speech in which he said that the mission of his generation, the generation that fought the war of independence from France in 1962 and had ruled the country ever since, was over.
He also announced a series of reforms and promised to rewrite the constitution during the start of 2013.
On Tuesday, however, Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said that the constitution reform process had been postponed — indefinitely.
Columnist Ihsane el-Kadi has suggested that the reform and talk of other candidates is all a smoke screen for Bouteflika's own continuing presidential ambitions.
"For several months, he's been pushing the idea that if there is no agreement on his successor, it should be him," he said in the online news site Maghreb Emergent. "I sincerely doubt he ever thought it wouldn't be him."
Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco.