Algeria reacts to new Bouteflika health scare

AFP , Tuesday 21 Feb 2017

This file photo taken on December 8, 2010 shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) shaking hands with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after addressing a press conference at the chancellery in Berlin (Photo: AFP)

Speculation mounted Tuesday over Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's health and political future after acute bronchitis forced the 79-year-old to postpone a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel had been due to meet him Monday as part of efforts to push North African countries to reduce the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean into Europe.

But Bouteflika's office said he was "temporarily unavailable due to acute bronchitis", forcing Merkel's visit to be pushed back.

Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999, suffered a stroke in 2013 that affected his speech and confined him to a wheelchair.

He has rarely appeared in public since, but frequently visits France for medical treatment.

"From great alacrity to temporary unavailability," read Algeria's French-language daily Liberte on Tuesday.

It was a reference to French President Francois Hollande's praise of Bouteflika's "alacrity" after they met in 2015.

"The head of state (...) was not in a condition yesterday to receive a foreign guest or even to appear in public," it said.

Bouteflika, who will be 80 on March 2, visited France in November for a "periodical" medical check-up, his office said.

But daily Le Soir d'Algerie played down speculation that his condition had worsened.

"Although very weak, (Bouteflika) did not hesitate to receive French Prime Minister Emmanuel Valls" in April 2016, it said.

Valls "unfortunately used the event to tweet a picture showing him on his worst day", it said.

The president has entertained several foreign dignitaries at his residence in recent years, providing rare photo opportunities.

Bouteflika's poor health has not stopped him clinging to power.

Algerians had expected him to step down at the end of his third term, but he successfully fought a 2014 campaign for re-election despite making few appearances on the campaign trail.

He made a rare public appearance in September, attending the opening of a new international conference centre in Algiers.

State television showed a wheelchair-bound president, flanked by his younger brother Said, unveiling a plaque at the site and touring parts of the new complex.

In recent months National Liberation Front chief Djamel Ould Abbes had said Bouteflika's health was improving, and even mentioned a possible fifth term in 2019.

But his opponents have regularly talked of a "power vacuum" at the top of government since his stroke.

"If we see him in a few days, it was a sudden tiredness and nothing more, but if he is not visible for 15 days, that means his condition has worsened," political analyst Rachid Grim told AFP.

"The real problem is in the duration. If he does not appear in 15 days that would mean he has been transferred abroad for treatment," he said.

Grim said that if key members of Bouteflika's National Liberation Front (FLN) and the allied Rally for National Democracy (RND) meet for talks in the coming days that could indicate that preparations are being made for his succession.

"It's a case of 'wait and see' but we can only speculate," he said.

Sociologist Nacer Djabi said the president may be in good health, but the cancellation of Monday's meeting had raised doubts about his future.

"Does this mean that he can no longer do even the minimal activities?" Djabi asked.

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