Algeria’s Bouteflika: a veteran leader who was finally ousted

Abdelaziz Bouteflika is pushed in a wheelchair next to his nephew before casting his ballot at a polling station in Algiers while running for re-election on April 17, 2014

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who died Friday aged 84, was Algeria’s longest-serving president and a veteran of the independence struggle who clung to power through ill health before being forced out in 2019.

His presidency survived the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled other leaders in the region and even a mini-stroke in 2013 that affected his mobility and speech.

The unprecedented protest movement has shaken Algeria’s ruling elite well beyond his departure, with anti-regime demonstrations continuing for a year after his ousting before they were paused because of the coronavirus crisis.

“I am the whole of Algeria. I am the embodiment of the Algerian people,” he said in 1999, the year he became president.

But he also faced criticism from rights groups and opponents who accused him of being authoritarian.

After his election, he addressed critics who saw him as another puppet of the military, saying: “I’m not three-quarters of a president.”

In early 2016, he dissolved the all-powerful DRS intelligence agency after dismissing its previously immovable leader General Mohamed Mediene, better known as Toufik, after a quarter century in the post.

Bouteflika was born in Morocco on March 2, 1937 to a family from western Algeria.

When independence came in 1962, he was appointed minister of sport and tourism at the age of just 25, under Algeria’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella.

While he was abroad, the military-backed government cancelled the 1991 elections, which an Islamist party had been poised to win, sparking a decade of bloodletting.

He initially faced six rivals, but when the opponents dropped out, crying foul, he found himself the only candidate.

The first, in September 1999, was a major gamble but paid off, leading to a sharp decrease in violence that helped propel Bouteflika to a second term in 2004.

His supporters argued that under his stewardship public and private investment created millions of jobs and dramatically lowered unemployment.

But a lack of opportunity drove many Algerians abroad as youth unemployment remained stubbornly high, feeding into the resentment that eventually erupted onto the streets.

“Bouteflika wasn’t keen on consulting briefing papers — he did not read the notes prepared for him by his advisers, ministers or diplomats,” according to biographer Farid Alilat.

However, in April 2013, Bouteflika was rushed to hospital in France after a mini-stroke, and spent three months recovering.

Bouteflika’s decision to seek a fourth mandate in 2014 after 15 years in power sparked both derision and criticism from those who questioned his ability to rule.

In his rare public appearances in his final years, Bouteflika spoke with difficulty and faced constant speculation over his health, while falling oil prices exposed the country’s heavy dependence on hydrocarbons.

His candidacy was formally submitted on March 3, 2019 while he was in Switzerland for what the presidency described as another round of routine medical tests.

A pledge not to serve a full term if re-elected failed to quell public anger, and after losing the support of the then army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, Bouteflika decided on March 11 not to stand.

His time in power was overshadowed by the bloody repression of protests in the Kabylie region in spring 2001 and corruption scandals, while major challenges remain, including regular jihadist attacks.

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Originally published as Algeria’s Bouteflika: a veteran leader who was finally ousted

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