Algeria's Bouteflika: A veteran leader who was finally ousted

Saturday September 18 2021
Boute PIC

Algeria's former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

By AFP

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.

But his bid for a fifth term in 2019 sparked public anger that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets, quickly forcing him to resign after two decades in power.

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. 

Dubbed "Boutef" by Algerians, he had helped foster peace after a decade-long civil war in the 1990s.

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

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Known for his three-piece suit even in the stifling heat, Bouteflika was respected by many for his role in ending the civil war, which official figures say killed nearly 200,000 people.

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

When Bouteflika came to power with the support of an army battling Islamist guerrillas, nobody expected him to stay in office for so long.

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

Paradoxically, it was only after his stroke that Bouteflika was able to consolidate power in a country where the shadowy intelligence service has long been viewed as a "state within a state".

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.


Long spell in exile 

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

At the age of 19, he joined the National Liberation Front (FLN) in its struggle against the French colonial rulers.

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.

He became foreign minister the following year, a post he held for more than a decade, but was sidelined after the death of president Houari Boumediene in 1978 and went into self-imposed exile.

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.

Bouteflika returned from Switzerland in 1999 to stand for president with the backing of the army, which saw in him a potential figure of reconciliation.

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

He proposed an amnesty for rebels who laid down their arms and twice secured public endorsement for "national reconciliation" through referendums.

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 third term in 2009 followed a constitutional amendment allowing him to stand again.

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

When the Arab Spring arrived in January 2011, Bouteflika rode out the storm by lifting a 19-year state of emergency and using oil revenues to grant pay rises.

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.


Protests bring downfall 

"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.

"But he had an extraordinary memory recall."

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

He had already been hospitalised in Paris in 2005 because of intestinal problems from which he never fully recovered.

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.

He did not even campaign and voted from a wheelchair, but still won an official 81 percent of the vote.

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.

But it was his aborted bid for a fifth term that proved the last straw for a critical mass of Algerians.

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.

Huge protests against his rule had begun on February 22.

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.

As rallies against his rule swelled even further, Bouteflika resigned from the presidency on April 2.

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.

"Bouteflika failed to turn Algeria into a modern country, with real institutions," according to Myriam Ait-Aoudia, a professor of political science.