The president who doesn’t speak
For many Algerians it is difficult to understand how their 82-
year-old president, who suffered a stroke six years ago and
can hardly walk or talk, can run the country.
This turned to disbelief when it was announced that Abdelaziz
Bouteflika was running for a fifth term in April – he did not
even turn up in person on Sunday to register his candidacy.
A wave of anger has moved students, teachers, lawyers and
even journalists onto the streets in protest – they seem
determined not to accept the continued status quo of rule by
a virtually invisible leader.
Many worry that a failure to find a successor to President
Bouteflika, who came to power in 1999, could lead to
instability should he die in office.
His last known public address was in 2014 – a victory
speech to thank Algerians for their renewed confidence in his
leadership after he won the last presidential election.
University students and their teachers have rallied in Algiers
to demand President Bouteflika step down
He mentioned plans to “reinforce separation of powers,
strengthen… the role of the opposition and guarantee rights
Some viewed this as a sign of policy changes to come to
ensure a smooth transition of power, yet there has been no
evidence of this and his appearances since have been few
and far between.
Algerians may have been lucky enough to catch brief
glimpses of him on state television greeting visiting foreign
Or catch him at the opening of a new conference hall in 2016
– the footage shows him in a wheelchair, looking weak and
tired, but alert.
But it was not until 2018 that it was clear that his party was
pushing him forward as a contender for this year’s elections.
He was at the opening of a restored mosque and two metro
stations in the capital, Algiers. A few weeks later he was
given a tour to see the construction of the Grand Mosque of
Algiers, a $2bn (£1.52bn) project billed to make it the third
biggest mosque in the world.
Yet again, however, the president, who won elections in 2014
despite doing no personal campaigning, does not have any
So why have the ruling coalition and the opposition not been
able to put forward other viable candidates?
The opposition has historically been too divided – and as the
president grew older and frailer the bickering within the ruling
elite, including the army, has paralysed any political change.
The ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) has ruled the North
African nation since gaining independence from France in
1962 after a bloody seven-year war.
The power, or “le pouvoir” as many Algerians have come to
describe those who run the country, has been centred around
the party, some powerful generals and prominent
businessmen. You may also be interested in: That political
class has included some of the opposition, who have either
ruled in coalition or towed the government line over the
years, which has largely discredited them.
It is a club that has been accused of corruption and
In recent comments to the French media about the protests,
prominent Algerian writer Kamel Daoud said the country’s
youth were being robbed of power by their elders.
He said by offering a candidate “who was almost dead”, “le
pouvoir” was showing its contempt for the young people in
Algeria where more than 30% of people aged under 30 are
But it is the legacy of Algeria’s recent civil war which seems
to have stagnated attempts at reform.
The brutal conflict ended in 2002 and weighs heavily on
those who fought in it and have grown up in the wake of it –
to the extent that some have seemed to be willing to trade
some of their freedoms for stability.
The violence left an estimated 150,000 Algerians dead, some
of whom were “forcibly disappeared” by the security forces.
Even liberal opponents of the government are believed to
have collaborated with the security agencies in the 1990s
during the civil war against Islamist insurgents.
This has all led to a deep distrust at all levels of society –
and has left little room for any genuine compromises or
meaningful national dialogue to instigate change.
A Tunisian human rights defender, who spent many years
visiting Algeria, told me she was always struck by this
paranoia – to the extent that local rights groups were unwilling
to even trust human rights organisations with information.
Other countries in North Africa have shown that decades of
one-man rule leave deep roots. In Libya, neighbours, siblings
and friends distrusted each other under Muammar Gaddafi’s
42-year rule. He was deposed in 2011, the same year as
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s long-time ruler.
He had ruled Tunisia through “landslide victories” at the polls
and a system that cornered the opposition, weakened it and
ultimately reduced them to a side show.
On Sunday, President Bouteflika again offered dialogue – and
constitutional reform in the event of his re-election as a way
What is new this time is that he has promised that this will
lead to early elections in which he will not contest.
While this could be an opportunity to ensure a peaceful
transition of power, he will have to move quickly given his
Yet Algeria’s problems are, in the words of some regional
observers, bigger than an ailing president.
It is a system that has kept running thanks to the many
people who oil it.
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