Ailing president (77) of Algeria seeks a fourth term

Military factions jockey for power in the post-Bouteflika era

Algeria’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika drinking tea with prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal when he was being treated for a stroke in a Paris hospital on June 11th, 2013. Photograph: AFP/Getty Image

Algeria’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika drinking tea with prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal when he was being treated for a stroke in a Paris hospital on June 11th, 2013. Photograph: AFP/Getty Image

Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 00:59

During decades of rigged elections, an Algerian blogger joked bitterly, “they made the dead vote”. Now, with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika standing for a fourth term in the April 17th poll, “it’s the dead who are asking us to vote”.

Bouteflika, who will turn 77 on March 2nd, has ruled Algeria since 1999. He was hospitalised in Paris for a stroke from April until July 2013, and has not spoken a word in public since. He reportedly speaks with difficulty, has lost the use of an arm, can barely walk and suffers memory lapses.

Yet Bouteflika’s prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, announced Bouteflika’s candidacy for re-election on February 22nd. “President Bouteflika is in good health. He has the intellectual capacity and the vision necessary to assume this responsibility,” said Sellal, who was “Boutef’s” campaign manager in the last two elections.

Algerian newspapers denounced what they called Bouteflika’s “by proxy” candidacy. “The government run by Sellal and the presidency run by Saïd Bouteflika [the president’s younger brother and adviser] decided to announce the president’s candidacy in his place and perhaps without his knowledge,” the Arab language El Khabar reported.

Algeria has been a military dictatorship masquerading as a democracy since independence from France in 1962. In 2008, the regime took the precaution of changing the constitution to enable the president to serve an unlimited number of terms.

Bouteflika’s proponents say he stands for stability, and recall that he led the country through the “dark decade” of 1992-2002, when 200,000 Algerians were killed in a civil war between the military and Islamists.

While Bouteflika remains holed up in a state residence at Sidi-Ferruch, 30km west of Algiers, two clans in the state security apparatus are positioning themselves for the post-Bouteflika era. The chief of staff of the army and deputy defence minister Gen Gaïd Salah leads the pro-Bouteflika clan.

Salah is at odds with Gen Tewfik Médiène, known simply as “Tewfik”, the head of the department of information and security (DRS) – the former sécurité militaire – and a veritable state within the state.

In the past it was Tewfik, who trained in the former Soviet Union, who led the secret conclave of generals that chose Algerian presidents. Tewfik reportedly opposes a fourth term for Bouteflika and the DRS has been investigating corruption in Bouteflika’s entourage.

The head of the National Liberation Front (FLN), long the sole political party in Algeria, blew open the internecine warfare within the regime in an interview with the TSA website this month. Amar Saadani, the FLN chief and a staunch member of the Bouteflika camp, demanded Tewfik’s resignation.

“The presence of internal security in all institutions gives the impression that the government is not civilian,” Saadani said. “The agents of this department are everywhere. I don’t understand why leaders’ telephones are tapped.”

The slaughter at the gas field at Amenas, 1,300km southeast of Algiers, in January 2013 is believed to have emboldened Tewfik’s critics. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb seized hundreds of Algerian and foreign workers there, in retaliation for the French intervention in Mali. Thirty-eight hostages and 29 extremists were killed.

Tewfik’s DRS failed to prevent the mass hostage-taking, and multiple assassinations and bombings which Saadani listed. “Tewfik should have resigned,” he concluded.

Bouteflika made his last public speech in May 2012. “My generation has reached its end,” he said. “We did things for the country. We educated, built housing, took care of those who needed help. Henceforward, the country is in your hands, you the young. Take care of it.”

Veterans of the war of independence have monopolised power for 52 years. Bouteflika’s speech was mistakenly interpreted as a hand-off to the next generation, but it was merely another broken promise by the regime. Salah and Tewfik, the protagonists of the present power struggle, are aged 74 and 73, scarcely younger than Bouteflika.

With Algeria’s main opposition parties boycotting the April 17th election, abstention will be the only way to express dissatisfaction. “You never cared about us,” the publisher and former columnist Abdallah Benadouda wrote on his Facebook page. “Leave us alone. Go fight each other somewhere else . . . Elect whomever you wish. Insult each other. Kill each other. You scare us.”

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