He’s 76 years old and he has been in convalescence since he suffered a minor stroke last April, for which he was transferred to a Paris hospital; he has been president of Algeria for three mandates; and, despite all that, aging Algerian President Bouteflika isn’t ready to let go of power.
Under normal circumstances, and in a country with a minimum level of respect for democracy, the guy should have left office a long time ago. This what many Algerian analysts and politicians have asserted. In the Arab world, however, conquering and conceding power follow a different set of logic., and Algeria is no exception.
It’s true the country has had more presidents and elections than other Arab states where dictators ruled for decades and never held free and fair presidential elections but held instead “referendums” where they got “99.99” % of people’s approval.
Still, we know very well that the powerful military in Algeria has been orchestrating the results of presidential elections and that if there wasn’t one-ruling presidential system in Algeria, there has at least been a one-ruling party system.
First elected in 1999 as president of the 5th Algerian Republic, Abdelaziz Bouteflika is clearly the most powerful president since Houari Boumediene. The Morocco-born Algerian national had a remarkable debut in politics at a very young age, first as a member of the liberation movement fighting for independence and then as MP in post-colonial Algeria before being appointed Minister for Youth, Sports and Tourism and then head of his country’s diplomatic institutions as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
He rose higher in office when he became Boumediene’s right hand man, with whom he orchestrated a coup against President Ahmed Ben Bella. Bouteflika was destined to take over after his mentor’s sudden death in 1978. At this point, his political career was very close to being fulfilled.
However, soon after things went upside-down for the ambitious politician. A military figure, Chadli Benjdid, was chosen, instead, as president. Bouteflika was sidelined afterwards, forcing him to choose a self-imposed exile in 1981. Six years later, Bouteflika returned to Algeria during the internal crisis of the ruling party since independence–Front de Libération Nationale (FLN)–was deepening. Public discontent vis-à-vis how the party had been handling the country’s domestic affairs was deepening, which finally culminated in popular uprisings in October 1988.
The regime had the option to allow some freedoms to ease off the pressure of the regime. Pluralism was institutionalized and so new political parties emerged. Among them, one party in particular knew how to instrumentalize public dissatisfaction with decades of FLN’s rule.
The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was more of a social contestation movement than a modern political party with a clear agenda on how to fix economy or run state affairs. Yet, with a combination of religious and populist discourse FIS managed to attract thousands of disillusioned citizens, especially among the youth.
A first sweeping victory in local elections in 1990 apparently wasn’t enough of a warning for the regime. The country’s strongmen probably underestimated the Islamist movement’s true force. However, the first round of general elections in December 1991 confirmed the ugly truth everybody was trying to ignore.
When the army canceled the results of the elections a bloody civil war broke out between the state and radical Islamic factions, claiming the lives of around 200.000 Algerians during an era which was later named “the Black Decade”.
The country sank into a political quagmire. In many countries, at different times in history, when a crisis worsened there was an urgent need for a charismatic leader–Algeria needed a savior at that moment. This time Abdelaziz Bouteflika was the military’s best choice.
The experienced statesman managed to bring peace back to the country after he launched a civil reconciliation initiative that granted amnesty to Islamist militants who agreed to lay down their arms. He then grew in popularity, which made him easily secure a second term in 2004.
He gradually gained more power and influence than his predecessors and succeeded, as many analysts say, in cornering the strong military. As he did so, his health started to fail him. In 2005 he was taken to hospital in France for urgent treatment of a bleeding stomach ulcer.
Then, last April he was rushed to Paris again after suffering a mini-stroke. The incident triggered debate among the Algerian public on whether the president was still fit for the job. For months he has been in convalescence and made only few public appearances.
Many called for article 88 of the Constitution, which deals with the cases in which the president is unable to carry out his functions, to be enforced. Bouteflika however remains defiant. After all the speculations made about how much control the ill president is still maintaining, he recently demonstrated he is still pulling the strings.
The recent reshuffle of government cabinet and the “imposition” of Amar Saadani as secretary general of FLN was an indication to several observers that the president and his entourage are still running the show inside the regime.
Many saw that those recent moves aim to control and define the outcome of next year’s presidential elections. Bouteflika might be, because of his deteriorating health, unable to run for a new term, but he’s clearly steadfast in his determination to place his personal choice in the presidential seat.
It rather looks, however, that for the country’s benefit, the president should be seriously considering to retire. No matter how firm his grip on power now, time catches up with everybody, and he will have to let go sooner or later.
© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed