Algeria Mourns the Loss Of A Strongman

Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and North African country’s longest-serving president died on Friday at age 84. Although the actual cause of death has been undisclosed, he had been suffering from health problems in recent years.

After a stroke in 2013 that affected his speech and forced him to use a wheelchair, he retreated from the public, earning the nickname of “the phantom President” in 2014 when he was elected for a fourth consecutive term, without even appearing in person on the campaign trail.

It is believed he was born into a modest Family in Oujda, Morocco, in 1937, and even though he partook in Algeria’s war of independence from France, his exact role is unknown. He reportedly joined the National Liberation Army, the military branch of the National Liberation Front, in 1956, at the age of 19.

End of an era in Algeria

Bouteflika, after two decades in power, resigned in April 2019 because of the pressure of the Hirak, weekly street demonstrations that erupted against his plan to seek a fifth term. After the military abandoned him, he had to step down, and some close figures were jailed.

Nevertheless, the old guard from his era still largely rules the country. That is why the Hirak is still active and has been protesting for the implementation of the rule of law and major political and socioeconomic changes in the country in order to build a democracy. Massive weekly protests took place until the COVID-19 eruption but have been resumed since the summer of 2020.

Bouteflika belonged to a generation of leaders that ruled Algeria since it gained independence. As Al Jazeera reports, in 1962, Bouteflika served in Algeria’s first post-colonial government as the minister of youth and sports, and later was the minister of foreign affairs, becoming the youngest person in the world to hold such a position at only 26 years old.

During his years in office, Bouteflika emerged as a relevant figure both in Arab politics and in the Non-Aligned Movement. He hosted the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Algiers in 1974. That same year, he ordered the expulsion of South African officials from Algeria to protest its apartheid system.

When then-President Boumediene died due to a rare blood disease in 1978, he left behind a power vacuum that ChadliBendjedid, former minister of defence with strong military backing, seized. In 1979 Bouteflika was out of the political arena, but 2 years after, he was convicted of embezzling more than $23m from Algeria’s embassies.

He exiled himself and returned to Algeria’s political stage in 1999, with the military’s support. Algerians were still traumatised by the period of civil war that claimed between 150,000-200,000 Algerians. It was then when he became the elected president with 74% of the vote, according to official results.

He was widely praised for settling the turmoil after the civil war with a referendum on the Law of Civil Concord. This was a peace agreement offering amnesty to rebels willing to lay down their arms, and more than 98 % voted in favour. Moving into the 2000s, Bouteflika’s government enjoyed further international support after siding with the US on the “war on terror”, and also thanks to the country’s immense oil and natural gas reserves.

As an oil-rich country, Algeria was finally able to modernise under Bouteflika amid national allegations of corruption, fraud, and mismanagement. As a matter of fact, the country was ranked 100th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2014. Although with known cases of corruption, the Algerian military and international forces backed Bouteflika and made his second, third and fourth presidential terms a reality.

It is worth mentioning that his third and fourth terms in office were possible after the 2008 constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits. This was seen as a power gripping movement and a setback to democracy.

Why was he toppled in 2019 and not during the Arab Spring?

The so-called Arab Spring wave protest in 2011 that toppled Tunisia’s President Ben Ali and Egypt president Hosni Mubarak and rocked other countries that are now submerged in civil war and conflict (Syria, Libya, and Yemen) seemed to have passed by Algeria.

Bouteflika due to calculated socioeconomic manoeuvres, repression, nepotism, and vote-buying was able to calm the waters. In 2011, Bouteflika lifted a state of emergency that had been in effect for 19 years, ordered police to disperse nearly all demonstrations, diffused propaganda recalling the dangers of falling into chaos (using the fear of another civil war) and, funded by oil revenue, bought social peace and provided subsidies and assistance.

Muted burial

Bouteflika has been buried at a cemetery for its independent heroes but without the honours accorded to leaders who died before him. State television announced that Bouteflika would be laid to rest at El Alia Cemetery, east of the capital Algiers, without the usual eight-day official mourning period.

The announcement of Bouteflika’s death triggered muted reactions, reflecting his absence from public life. A statement from his successor Abdel Madjid Tebboune noted Bouteflika’s past as a fighter in the war for independence and said flags would be at half-mast for three days to honour him.

On the streets of the capital Algiers, many residents told AFP news agency the once-formidable president would not be missed.“Bless his soul. But he doesn’t deserve any tribute because he did nothing for the country,” expressed Rabah, a greengrocer. People are divided between the ones who could not care less about his death and the ones that are advocating for national mourning.

According to the Algerian online media site, El Watan, some political parties, national figures, and Foreign heads of state offered condolences and the funeral counted on the presence of President Tebboune, some senior state and government officials, and family.

El Watan has been the only media to have commented on the fact that the Minister of Mojahedin and Rights Holders/Minister of the MartyrsLaïdRebiga, delivered a funeral oration before the burial.

At the beginning of his presidency, he was seen as a socialist activist, but he never believed in any ideological and political project: he wanted money and power. His legacy will be  marked by corruption and one of leaving a country able to be so rich due to natural resources, but with such poor infrastructures, high levels of unemployment and harsh living conditions.

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