Had the British writer Rudyard Kipling still been alive he would probably not have found a better inspiration for his novella “The Man Who Would Be King” than Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Rabat – Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s political life seems indeed an epic story, flavored with all the dramatic ingredients of ambition, betrayal, plots, and the rise and fall of friends and foes.
As the ailing president prepares himself, again, for another presidential race that might culminate in a shocking mandate due to his fragile health, opposition to his candidacy grows as a good number of Algerians cry aloud: “Enough is enough.”
While it is still unclear whether Bouteflika and his entourage will back down from their initial plan of him ruling for another five years, the current events invite us to take a look at how and why Bouteflika became the unmovable “King” in a republic where coups and machinations of the army’s top generals made the stay of his predecessors in the Palace of Mouradia shorter in comparison with his two decades in power.
The second man
A native of the Moroccan border city of Oujda, the young Abdelaziz Bouteflika found his calling in the Algerian War of Liberation that saw him and some of his peers rise to power after the country’s independence in 1962.
Famously known as the “Clan d’Oujda,” in reference to members of the National Liberation Army (ALN) who were based in the eastern Moroccan city, the group was instrumental in seizing power in post-independence Algeria, after a military coup in 1965 led by Colonel Houari Boumediene which overthrew the late President Ahmed Ben Bella.
During the 13 years of Boumediene’s rule, Bouteflika was seen as the second man. The charismatic young minister of foreign affairs nurtured ambitions to take his mentor’s place. So when Boumediene died in 1978, Bouteflika saw himself as the natural heir.
Falling from grace
Bouteflika’s dreams of the presidency were dashed when the leaders of the military opted for the less charismatic Chedli Ben Jdid. Bouteflika’s notorious mismanagement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ budget was invoked for his being sidelined.
The fall from grace led him to a self-imposed exile during the 1980s and 1990s in the Gulf countries and France, during which his political career seemed deemed to end.
In 1994, in the midst of a bloody civil war in Algeria between the country’s security apparatus and militant Islamist groups, a conflict in which civilians paid the heaviest price, army generals sought out Bouteflika to assume the presidency. As negotiations failed, General Liamine Zeroual took the job instead and Bouteflika once again went into oblivion, but for a shorter period this time.
The prince that was promised
Probably sensing that the generals needed him, Bouteflika was able to renegotiate the offer of the military from a strong position.
In 1999 the generals once again extended their invitation for him to assume the presidency, and Bouteflika made it clear in his famous statement that he refused to be “three thirds of a president,” indicating that, unlike his predecessors, he would not have less power.
Despite the boycott of the presidential elections that year by other candidates who denounced fraud by the government that clearly rallied behind Bouteflika to ensure his win, there was no denying that Bouteflika brought hope to millions of Algerians during the darkest hours of what they call “the Black Decade.”
Around 200,000 civilians had died in the years after the military canceled the general elections in 1992 following a sweeping victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
In an effort to end the violence, Bouteflika launched the “Civilian Harmony” initiative, which offered amnesty or reduced prison sentences to members of Islamist militant groups in exchange for giving up their arms.
Many slammed the initiative, accusing the government of not thoroughly investigating applicants’ cases to determine whether they were involved in grave crimes or not. Algerians also argued the government was sparing state agents accused of human rights violations. And yet, the campaign helped to gradually reduce violence in the country.
Bouteflika was seen as the man who brought peace to Algeria.
Unlimited mandates, mounting pressures
As president, Bouteflika solidified his grip on power, eliminating some of the country’s strongest generals who reportedly were against his remaining in the presidency, most notably Mohamed Lamari in 2004 and Mohamed Mediene in 2015.
In October 2008, after nine years in power, Bouteflika only had to change the Constitution to add five more years to his rule. The country’s supreme law limited presidential terms to just two.
The amendment granted Bouteflika unlimited terms and was a clear indication of his amassed power during the time he spent in the Mouradia Palace.
The return of peace helped the country accumulate huge sums of oil revenues which enabled Bouteflika and the government to keep the situation stable and defuse social tension through programs of housing, employment, and pay raises for public employees.
And then came the Arab Spring. While Algeria was not as affected by the wave of pro-democracy protests as neighboring countries, the year 2011 saw Algerian activists take to the streets to ask for reforms and denounce Bouteflika’s rule.
The fall of oil prices in 2014 ushered the country into a new period, where economic hardships coupled with a deepening political crisis loomed.
Bouteflika’s running for president in the same year while his health deteriorated increased opposition to his rule. Despite his victory, his health problems continued, forcing him to remain absent for the bulk of his fourth mandate.
His absence raised questions about who really rules in Algeria and what that person or those people have in mind as far as the country’s political future is concerned.
Embattled, but defiant
Prior to Bouteflika’s announcement he would run for a fifth term, the electoral situation was not clear in Algeria. Some observers downplayed the possibility of a fifth campaign due to the president’s collapsing health. They were probably expecting that the state’s top leaders would come to a consensus about another candidate to rule the country for the next five years.
Yet, what those political commentators probably overlooked were the statements by some of the political parties’ leaders, including the current Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia. For months, Ouyahia and others reiterated their belief that there was nothing wrong with the president and that he is fit to rule for a new term.
The fact that Bouteflika, or at least those around him, pushed for another mandate for the ailing president suggests to some observers that Algeria’s strongmen could not agree on a successor, or at least that they have some plans that they want to enforce while using Bouteflika as a facade.
What the strongmen least expected apparently was how much many Algerians are appalled by such a scenario.
The fervor of the last week’s demonstrations in Algeria, in which protesters clearly voiced their rejection of a fifth term for Bouteflika, raises the question of what is the next move for the country’s top decision makers.
Will they remain defiant? If so, for how long?
Meanwhile, the man who would be King will probably exit the political scene in a far less glorious fashion than he would have probably ever imagined.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.
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