ALGIERS, Algeria – In Algeria, which has been run by a succession of military men for decades, presidential elections often are foregone conclusion. But not this year.
The campaign for the April vote already is raising questions: Will the ailing president run for re-election? If not, will his supporters and the powerful intelligence services be able to agree on someone else? And where does Algeria's army stand in all this?
With the lack of any clear direction from on top, political squabbles are being fought in the media, with the head of the governing party decrying the shadowy intelligence chief's grip on power, and a journalist accusing the president's brother of corruption and scandalous personal behavior.
A retired general even has hinted in an interview that the nation's powerful army, long the pillar of the nation, might not obey the current president's handpicked chief of staff.
"Since the independence of Algeria, there was always a sort of gentlemen's agreement between politicians and security services, because the two came from the same place, but this is the first time that Algerians are watching an open war between the president and the intelligence services," said Abdelaali Rezagui, a political analyst in Algiers.
Algeria first lurched toward democracy in 1989 by allowing multiparty elections, but most analysts say power is held by a shadowy group of generals ruling by consensus, with the president as a kind of first among equals.
The main goal for leaders of this oil-rich country — a key energy supplier to Europe and a U.S. ally in the war against al-Qaida — is to maintain the status quo and avoid internal conflicts. Memories are still fresh of the civil war with Islamists in the 1990s that ripped the country apart and killed 200,000 people.
It is not clear, however, if President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is nearly 77 years old, will run for a fourth term on April 17, or even if he can, after a stroke weakened him last year. That uncertainty seems to be changing the longstanding rules of the political game and setting off a so-called "war of the clans" among the factions of the political establishment.
In a Feb. 3 interview supposedly about internal problems in the president's party, the leader of the governing National Liberation Front, Amar Saadani, suddenly said that the much-feared intelligence chief, army Gen. Mohammed "Tewfik" Mediene, was behind the rifts and called on him to end his decades "of meddling in politics."
Mediene has headed the feared government intelligence service, known as the Department of Research and Security, since 1992. He is widely considered a rival of the president and had never before faced such an accusation from as important a public figure as Saadani.
An apparent response soon came from the other camp when a former intelligence officer turned journalist, Hicham Abboud, sent a letter to the president's brother, Said Bouteflika, allegedly implicating him in every major corruption scandal over the last few years as well as accusing him of the kind of personal life very much frowned on this conservative country.
Said Bouteflika — the president's personal adviser and widely seen as the power behind the throne — responded Monday by allowing the letter to be published on a relatively new online news site. In his first public statement in 15 years, he called the letter an attack on all Algerians.
Then on Wednesday, retired Gen. Hocine Benhadid said in an interview that Bouteflika's army chief of staff did not have the respect of the military and that the soldiers would not follow him. "Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah has no credibility, and no one in the army holds him in their heart," he told El Watan newspaper.
In an effort clearly meant to end the war of words, the presidency then issued a statement as part of its condolences over a military plane crash that killed 77 soldiers and family members on Tuesday, warning that "no one has the right, whatever their responsibility, to criticize the army."
The exchanges have sounded an alarm in the political class, with many expressing concern that the country's much vaunted stability — the region-wide Arab Spring protests barely touched Algeria — might be threatened.
Veteran Algeria observer Geoff Porter described the situation as very out of the ordinary.
"Algeria is at its greatest political inflection point in two decades, if not more," he said. "Because of the importance of the presidential elections, because the stakes are so high, the competition has reached a new level and people are turning to new methods advancing their political preferences."
The next three weeks are important because Bouteflika will have to finally say whether he will run for re-election.
The political equation appears to be changing in Algeria, and compromise between the clans seems unlikely, according to Lounes Guemache, whose Tout Sur l'Algerie website has been the arena for many of these bitter exchanges.
"The issue now is the end of the coalition at the top, and we don't know how it's going to turn out," he said.
Schemm reported from Rabat.