Protests continue against Algeria's phantom president

Abdelaziz Bouteflika (81) cannot walk, talk, shake hands or receive visiting dignitaries

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika gestures during his swearing-in ceremony in Algiers on April 28th, 2014. He suffered a stroke in 2013. Photograph: Louafi Larbi

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika gestures during his swearing-in ceremony in Algiers on April 28th, 2014. He suffered a stroke in 2013. Photograph: Louafi Larbi

 

Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s grotesque presidency is stranger than political fiction. Bouteflika, aged 81, cannot walk, talk, shake hands or receive visiting dignitaries. He has not spoken in public since 2014, and was debilitated by a stroke in 2013.

Yet the phantom president is standing for a fifth term in presidential elections slated for April 18th. 

Explaining his candidacy in a written “message to the nation”, Bouteflika said, “Of course, I no longer have the same physical strength as before, but the unshakeable will to serve the country has never left me, and enables me to transcend constraints linked to health problems which can happen to anyone.”

The announcement was a turning point.

“No fifth term!” was the rallying cry for mass demonstrations that started one week ago.

Tens of thousands marched peacefully in Algiers and a dozen other towns and cities on February 22nd. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets on February 24th.

The same day, hundreds of Algerians gathered on the Place de la République in Paris.

Algerian lawyers held a sit-in on the 25th. Students marched in Algiers and other cities on the 26th. While protests continued, Bouteflika flew to Geneva for medical care.

A protester holds up the Algerian flag during a rally against the Algerian president’s bid for a fifth term in office at the Place de la République in Paris. Photograph: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty
A protester holds up the Algerian flag during a rally against the Algerian president’s bid for a fifth term in office at the Place de la République in Paris. Photograph: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty

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Meriem Abdou, the editor-in-chief of Algeria’s national radio station Channel 3, resigned in protest at a news blackout. Journalists demonstrated against censorship on Wednesday and Thursday, when at least a dozen were arrested.

More mass protests have been organised for Friday, in the run-up to the deadline for presidential candidates to declare by midnight Sunday.

Photographs of Bouteflika became a target for protesters, after the regime resorted to organising ceremonies around large, framed portraits.

The mayor of the eastern town of Khenchela had said he would accept endorsements for no presidential candidates other than Bouteflika. Thousands of protestors gathered in front of the town hall, demanding that the mayor “remove [Bouteflika’s] photo but leave the flag”.

Algerian journalists are pictured during a protest for freedom of expression against the fifth term of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers on February 28th. Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA
Algerian journalists are pictured during a protest for freedom of expression against the fifth term of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers on February 28th. Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA

The phrase became a slogan across the country.

Images of protestors tearing down and stamping on Bouteflika’s portrait in the town hall in Annaba went viral. A huge portrait of Bouteflika hanging outdoors near the historic main post office in the capital was also torn down.

So far, the opposition daily El Watan notes, the military-backed regime “has shown no signs of panic, even less a sign of opening up.”

Because of Bouteflika’s “absurd” candidacy, the newspaper continued, “The entire political system has been ordered to leave, to be replaced by a new democratic order.”

Call for change

A group called Mwatana, meaning citizenship, has emerged from the demonstrations.

It is mainly comprised of intellectuals and academics, and is drawing up a plan for political transition that would begin with a constituent assembly which would draft a new constitution to be approved by referendum, followed by legislative and presidential elections.

France occupied Algeria for 132 years and the two countries remain deeply entwined. Mohamed Sifaoui, the author of Where is Algeria Going?, claims French president Emmanuel Macron approved a fifth term for Bouteflika several weeks ago.

Ten per cent of French gas imports originate in Algeria, and France is Algeria’s second largest trading partner, after China.

French officials fear that in the event of violent conflict in Algeria, millions would flee to France, either as boat people or legally, because about one million Algerians hold dual nationality.

Forty-five per cent of Algeria’s 42 million population are under the age of 25.

Algeria has not seen comparable protests since bread riots in 1988 led to political reforms and the rise of the Islamic Salvation Front, which was poised to win free and fair elections in 1992.

The military annulled those elections and a decade-long Islamist insurrection ensued, in which close to 100,000 people were killed.

Police block a university’s gate while students protest inside the campus against president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to extend his 20-year rule by seeking a fifth term in Algiers, Algeria on February 26th. Photograph:Ramzi Boudina/Reuters
Police block a university’s gate while students protest inside the campus against president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to extend his 20-year rule by seeking a fifth term in Algiers, Algeria on February 26th. Photograph:Ramzi Boudina/Reuters

Ruling clan

Bouteflika was chosen by the ruling clique in 1999 to end the civil war.

The last surviving leader from the 1954-1962 war of independence, he passed a Law of Civil Concord by referendum. The regime stayed in power by sharing the crumbs of Algeria’s oil wealth.

The Arab Spring bypassed the country, mainly because the population dreaded instability and bloodshed more than military dictatorship.

The ruling clan is run by Bouteflika’s younger brother Saïd (61), who never appears in public.

“The clan has already prepared the figures it will publish on the evening of April 18th,” says the Franco-Lebanese political scientist Antoine Basbous. “Participation, the percentage of votes for the incumbent president.

“But it’s all theatre, all fiction.”

That pre-ordained scenario is now threatened by mass protests. So far, they have been mainly peaceful.

Images of women handing flowers to policemen, and video of a protestor giving a vinegar-soaked handkerchief to a policeman to counteract tear gas, have circulated on social media.

After 20 years of Bouteflika, and the humiliation of being governed by a virtual mummy, the security forces may also be ready for change.

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