Algeria’s ailing president reshuffles Cabinet

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria’s president reshuffled the Cabinet Wednesday, making changes in key ministries including defense, interior and foreign affairs that analysts say strengthen his position after a long illness.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika spent 80 days convalescing in Paris from a stroke and has made only brief televised appearances since his July return. He had been expected to contest April’s elections, but since his illness there has been non-stop speculation about his successor.

The oil-rich country’s politics are closely watched, not least because it has the region’s most powerful military and is a key partner to the United States in the fight against al-Qaida-allied groups in northern Africa.

The reshuffle, which puts close associates in top positions at the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry, strengthens the hold of Bouteflika’s camp.

Despite periodic elections, power in Algeria lies in the hands of the president and the shadowy military and security chiefs, who will all be jockeying for position to choose the new president in April if Bouteflika can’t run.

“There is a definite attempt to reinforce Bouteflika’s clan structure in the government, to make it appear more active and credible,” said Kal Ben Khalid, an Algeria analyst who writes a North Africa blog called The Moor Next Door.

The move comes after Algeria’s prosecutor issued an arrest warrant in August for a former energy minister and Bouteflika ally — Chakib Khelil — on corruption charges; the move was considered a direct challenge to the president.

“They want people to believe Bouteflika now has the initiative,” said Ben Khalid.

Bouteflika’s close friend Tayeb Belaiz, head of the constitutional council, was named interior minister, a key position controlling security forces.

Army chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has often appeared with the 76-year-old Bouteflika since his illness, was made vice-minister of defense.

Ramtane Lamamra, a diplomat with wide experience in Africa as well as the U.N. has become the new foreign minister.

Geoff Porter of the North Africa Risk Consulting said that the Cabinet reshuffles mean Algeria is finally moving again after months of paralysis — even on key projects — during Bouteflika’s illness.

“Whatever the ideological and political implications of the shuffle, Algeria’s diplomatic partners, whether the U.S., France the EU, Tunisia and the business community have to welcome this development because it does break the deadlock,” he said. “It breaks the policymaking paralysis since the end of April.”

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Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco.

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