No one has seen Algerian President Abdelmejid Tebboune publicly in over 50 days after he contracted the Covid-19 virus two months ago.
His last appearance was on 15 October. After initial treatment in a local military health facility, Tebboune, 75, was flown to Germany on 28 October, where the opaqueness of his health situation soon developed into unsettling questions for Algerians.
During his stay in Germany, Tebboune’s office has issued repeated statements on his recovery and imminent return home “within hours”. But his prolonged absence has sparked debate about a possible power vacuum in Algeria, along with Tebboune’s replacement and even rumours of his death.
“How is Tebboune, not where is Tebboune,” Algeria’s Twittersphere has been asking for days, echoing the feelings of uncertainty in the country that have been growing for weeks and no amount of official press releases has been able to curb.
Tebboune was elected in controversial elections last December that were designed to end the unprecedented and massive protest movement that had been sweeping the country for months, the hirak, which had been demanding an end to the current regime.
The protests were sparked by former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid to run for a fifth term in office despite his six-year incapacitation. Under pressure from the growing protests, Algeria’s army chief of staff Ahmed Gaid-Saleh forced Bouteflika to step down in April 2019 by invoking Article 102 of the Constitution declaring him unfit to rule.
But the leaderless hirak’s demands to dismantle the post-1963 political system in Algeria, built up after the country’s war of independence against France and founded on military power, have raged on.
In a bid to end the protests, Gaid-Saleh, by then Algeria’s de facto ruler, proceeded with elections in December 2019 despite the hirak’s rejection of them due to concerns that they would be conducted under the same system as during the previous Bouteflika regime.
The protesters’ demands for an independent election process were dismissed by the army chief, even as Algerian security forces began a crackdown on both Bouteflika’s inner circle and figures associated with the hirak movement.
Gaid-Saleh died suddenly days after Tebboune was elected president in the lowest turnout in Algeria’s history. His vows for political reform and dialogue with the opposition have not been realised, and Tebboune’s focus shifted to constitutional amendments he said would bring stability to the country.
The drafting of a new political charter for Algeria was shrouded in secrecy but was marketed to the public as responding to the hirak’s demands because it limited the president’s tenure to two consecutive terms.
The document was put to a referendum on 1 November, only four days after Tebboune, who had put his weight behind the amendments, was flown to Germany for treatment.
The low turnout of 23.7 per cent and the absence of the man who had tried to rally the public behind the new charter indicated something of the nature of Algeria’s political crises despite efforts to redirect them and prevent a return of the 2019 protests.
The new charter now awaits Tebboune’s signature before it can be implemented, but Article 102 enacted to force Bouteflika’s resignation in April 2019 is once again the subject of discussion in Algeria.
The article allows the country’s Constitutional Council to declare the presidential post to be vacant should the president be unfit to rule for health reasons.
Once invoked, the speaker of the Algerian parliament takes over presidential responsibilities for 45 days. If the president’s health prevents him from returning to his duties at the end of that period, parliament has to call new elections within 90 days.
The climate in Algeria today is thus a painful reliving of the months and years leading up to Bouteflika’s ouster.
After suffering a stroke in 2013 that led to his being confined to a wheelchair, Bouteflika sought and won a fourth presidential term in 2014 after a campaign in which his prime minister had campaigned on his behalf.
In power since 1999, Bouteflika’s last address to the nation was in 2011, after which his health markedly deteriorated. As a result of his long medical trips to France and Switzerland and the growing influence of his shrinking inner circle, Bouteflika’s fourth term in office was marked with messy divisions within the powerful ruling oligarchy in Algeria.
In the Algerian political lexicon, the expression “fourth term” now alludes to the political crises caused by an incapacitated president with absolute powers. During his last seven years in office, Bouteflika became known as the “portrait president” because that was all the public saw of him.
The sense of déjà-vu in Algeria today is real, with Tebboune, the man chosen by the military to restore stability to the country, barely completing a year in office and now incapable of carrying out his duties just like his predecessor in a cruel twist of fate.
The irony that this has been happening on the first anniversary of both his election and the death of Gaid-Saleh, the general who engineered the transitional period, is not lost on anyone.
“The absence of Tebboune has plunged Algeria back to the fourth term,” said Algerian political analyst Abed Charef. There is “an absent president, a cacophony at the top of the state, an unmanaged country in the midst of an economic and political crisis made worse by the pandemic.”
In addition to its growing current-account deficit and bruised economy reeling from low international energy prices, Algeria’s problems have been compounded by Tebboune’s absence, notably in managing national security issues on both the eastern and western borders of the North African country.
While Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad’s government is trying to manage the crisis, there are certain prerogatives that only the president can exercise, and these have been put on hold since his hospitalisation in October.
“All this brings us back to the situation of April 2019 [when Bouteflika was forced to resign],” Charef wrote in a Facebook post. State institutions were paralysed, like the leaderless hirak movement, and were incapable of taking initiatives, he added.
Once again, the Algerian military, blamed for the current impasse, is likely to return to the front line of politics, although it has not formally intervened as yet.
“The more time passes, the more the situation deteriorates,” said Charef. “We must both unblock the situation and avoid falling back into the dead ends and unnecessary conflicts of summer 2019.”
The management of Tebboune’s absence echoes tactics from four decades ago used during the last months of former Algerian president Houari Boumediene’s life in the late 1970s.
News of his illness in September 1978 was kept secret and camouflaged with false news, including his surviving an assassination attempt and flying to Moscow for talks.
It was not until weeks later that the authorities finally disclosed news of his health, albeit reassuringly, before later admitting that he had a rare blood disease. Boumediene died on 27 December 1978 after a 40-day coma that the Algerian public had known nothing about.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.