‘I am all of Algeria’: Bouteflika embodied best but mainly worst of his country

The 20-year Algerian president’s death greeted with something like embarrassment

Algerian former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika salutes the crowd. Photograph: Alfred de Montesquieu/AP Photo

Algerian former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika salutes the crowd. Photograph: Alfred de Montesquieu/AP Photo

 

The burial of the former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Sunday marked the passing of the historic generation that fought for independence from France. Bouteflika was the country’s longest-serving head of state, from 1999 until 2019, but his legacy was tarnished by cronyism and corruption.

“I am all of Algeria, ” Bouteflika proclaimed during his first presidential campaign in 1999. He came to embody the country, for better and especially for worse: the monopolisation of power by those who fought the French; the country’s role as a leader of the developing world; botched economic planning and the inability to reform.

Bouteflika’s 20-year rule, like Algeria itself, left an overwhelming feeling of wasted potential. His passing was greeted with something approaching embarrassment, at home and in the former colonial power.

Public television announced Bouteflika’s death aged 84 late on Friday night with a simple printed band across the bottom of the screen. No special editions or documentaries were devoted to him. The Palace of the People in Algiers was prepared for the pro-forma lying in state. It was cancelled, probably out of fear that it would prompt demonstrations.

Previously, former presidents were given eight days of official mourning. President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who had served as Bouteflika’s prime minister, announced that the national flag would fly at half mast for three days only.

An armoured personnel carrier decorated with white flowers pulled Bouteflika’s casket on a gun carriage to El-Alia cemetery, where he was buried in the “martyrs’ corner” reserved for veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence.

In Paris, the Élysée Palace waited two days before issuing a laconic statement describing Bouteflika as “a major figure of the contemporary history of Algeria”. President Emmanuel Macron’s statement noted that Bouteflika had been “a demanding partner for France”.

Bouteflika had negotiated the Évian Accords that ended the war of independence. In 2005, Bouteflika waged a war of words against President Jacques Chirac – like him a veteran of the war – over a French law that vaunted the “benefits of colonialism”.

Kind words

The kind words sent by King Mohamed VI of Morocco were all the more striking because Algeria severed diplomatic relations with Morocco on August 24th in a row that began when the former US president Donald Trump recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara in exchange for Moroccan recognition of Israel.

Mohamed VI recalled Bouteflika’s close ties to Morocco, where he was born to Algerian parents in 1937 and spent his early childhood. Aged 19, Bouteflika joined the Armée de Libération Nationale, the armed branch of the FLN, whose headquarters were in Morocco.

In 1958, Bouteflika became private secretary to Houari Boumediene, to whom he remained close until Boumediene’s death in 1978. An accomplished orator, Bouteflika spoke classical Arabic and fluent French. He became the world’s youngest foreign minister at age 26. When Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first post-independence president, tried to sack “Boutef” in 1965, Boumediene staged a bloodless coup and Bouteflika remained as Boumediene’s foreign minister.

Those were Algeria’s glory days, when the country that defeated France became a beacon for liberation movements around the world, a leader of the non-aligned movement and the African Union. As foreign minister for 15 years, Bouteflika was its spokesman.

Bouteflika was seen as the natural successor to Boumediene, who died in 1978, but the generals chose Col Chadli Benjedid instead. Bouteflika was accused of having siphoned millions from the foreign ministry budget, went into exile for eight years and kept a low profile upon his return.

Vote rigging

In the 1990s, Algeria’s “black decade”, up to 200,000 people died in a civil war between Islamists and the military. Bouteflika declined the generals’ first offer to make him president in 1994, then accepted five years later. He would be elected four times, in 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014, with stratospheric scores that reeked of vote-rigging.

Bouteflika was for a while genuinely popular, because he ended the “black decade” by proposing a blanket amnesty for war crimes committed by Islamists and military alike. There was no real reconciliation, no justice, only an end to the violence.

For decades Algeria lived reasonably well off its hydrocarbon reserves, especially natural gas. Government handouts and the military’s iron grip warded off an “Arab spring”. Then fuel prices plummeted, the underlying poverty rose to the surface and sporadic rioting broke out.

“Boutef” had been debilitated by a stroke since 2013. His February 2019 announcement that he would seek a fifth term precipitated mass street protests. Two months later the generals forced him to resign.

Bouteflika’s younger brother Said ran the country for his last years in office. After Boutef’s resignation, Said was convicted of conspiring against the state and undermining the military. He was allowed out of prison on Sunday to attend his brother’s funeral.

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