Algeria’s president is ill, expect no details

AFP , Tuesday 21 May 2013

The tight-lipped official response to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's latest health crisis sparked conflicting reports and rumours. But beneath the fracas, real fears are simmering about Algeria’s political future.

The tight-lipped official response to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's latest health crisis sparked conflicting reports and rumours. But beneath the fracas, real fears are simmering about Algeria’s political future.

The Twittersphere went berserk over the weekend amid conflicting reports on ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s health more than a month after the 76-year-old leader was last seen in public.

“Bouteflika is fine. The proof: no wildlife documentaries on state TV,” said one tweet in French.

In a reference to the popular children’s book “Where’s Wally?” – or “Where’s Charlie?” in French - another tweet quipped, “It’s official: Charlie retires in favour of Bouteflika - who’s much harder to find.”

The candour visible on social media sites was in stark contrast with the Soviet-style secrecy of Algerian authorities on the state of the Algerian president’s health.

Bouteflika was last seen in public on April 17 when he attended the funeral of former president Ali Kafi. Days later, he was admitted to a French military hospital in Paris after suffering what the Algerian state news agency called a “mini-stroke”.

The Algerian rumour mill began spinning days after his hospitalisation, with some media reports maintaining that the president had been discharged from Val-de-Grâce, a French military hospital famed for treating high-profile patients and maintaining a tight-lipped confidentiality about their patients’ medical state.

Over the weekend, Algerian authorities censored two newspapers for reporting that Bouteflika had fallen into a coma, according to Hichem Aboud, the owner of the French daily, “Mon Journal” and the Arabic “Djaridati”.

“It would have been easy for the authorities to discredit our claims,” said Aboud, in an interview with FRANCE 24 on Monday morning. “They could have shown a few pictures of the president or issued a communiqué from the president’s doctor. But the president’s doctor isn’t speaking and the presidency isn’t communicating.”

As Algerians speculated about their leader’s health, with opposition leaders calling for Bouteflika’s resignation and a temporary transfer of power, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal finally issued a statement Monday night that the president was convalescing well in Paris.

The latest saga of an official silence feeding rumours and faulty reports, which in turn provides fodder for a quintessentially Algerian brand of humour – on Twitter and in sidewalk cafés – may have reached almost comical proportions.

But beneath the fuss and fracas, lies a very real fear of transition in a country that endured the grotesquely violent 1990s civil war, which was ultimately won by a military that has since dominated power in this oil and natural gas-rich North African nation.

“The Algerian authorities now can’t say anything more than what they’re saying because they have to prepare the next step,” said Karim Amellal from the Paris-based Sciences-Po university in an interview on the FRANCE 24 Debate show. “There is a power vacuum in Algeria, which is dramatic and worrying.”

A country ruled by old men

When he was appointed foreign minister in 1963 after Algeria won its independence from France, the 26-year-old Bouteflika cut a dashing, energetic picture as the world’s youngest foreign minister.

Half-a-century later, the Algerian president is in frail health as he enters the final year of his third consecutive term in office.

Despite announcing that he would step down at the next presidential election set for April 2014, the Algerian rumour mill is rife with reports that Bouteflika wants to run for a fourth term.

Such is the stature of this diminutive man who is widely credited with ending the civil war and putting a conflict-shattered nation back on its feet.

Today, the septuagenarian Algerian leader presides over a cabinet whose members have an average age of 70 years.

Algeria is a country ruled by old men. But that generation is dying out and there are no alternatives in sight.

“There are no Medvedevs in Algeria today,” said Pierre Conesa, a former French Defence Ministry official, referring to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who held the presidential post until Vladimir Putin’s return.

“In Algeria, as soon as a prime minister that’s a serious one comes along, he gets eliminated by Bouteflika himself. This means that there are no real possibilities for an election without any turmoil, without any demonstrations. That’s the problem,” stressed Conesa.

In a country that has proved immune to the uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011, there are many problems confronting political life in Algeria.

Despite Bouteflika’s attempts to blunt the military’s political influence, the real power in Algeria lies with a shadowy consortium of senior military and intelligence figures simply called “le pouvoir,” French for “the power”.

Some experts – and many Algerians – worry that without the reassuring presence of Bouteflika in the 2014 polls, the military may step in if the generals believed the stability of the country is at stake.

Referring to the Algerian civil war, Amellal noted that “the 1990s still structures the national psyche in Algeria. That’s why the army still plays an important role”.

Absent during the In Amenas crisis

The January attack on the remote Saharan In Amenas gas facility, when al Qaeda-linked militants held more than 800 people hostage, has proved that Islamist violence remains a threat in parts of Algeria.

The Algerian government’s handling of the In Amenas crisis bore all the hallmarks of the pouvoir’s tight-lipped way of doing business.

In the early days of the siege, as the international press scrambled for information, Western diplomats fumed over Algeria’s decision to launch a military mission without consulting the governments of the hostages. While Japan summoned the Algerian ambassador in Tokyo, British Prime Minister David Cameron publicly criticised the secrecy in parliament.

But the Algerian authorities, hardened by decades of brutal fighting against Islamist militants, simply shrugged off the international opprobrium.

During the long, tense days of the In Amenas crisis, Bouteflika was largely absent on the public stage and it fell upon Prime Minister Sellal to finally make a much-delayed public statement on the military rescue mission.

On Monday night, Sellal once again yielded to a public clamour for information – this time on Bouteflika’s health.

"The president, whose survival has never been questioned and whose health is improving every day, has been required by his doctors to take complete rest,” said Sellal in an official statement, before adding, “The illness of President Bouteflika will soon be no more than a bad memory".

In a speech before the 2012 legislative elections, Bouteflika himself called on Algeria’s youth to engage in the political process.

“My generation is finished,” thundered the ageing president. “Our time is over. Our time is over. Our time is over,” he repeated to an applauding audience.

But in a country where the youth have scant opportunities to engage in national politics, not everybody believes – or would like to believe – that Bouteflika’s time is over. Or at least that’s what they’re saying – publically.


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