Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika dies at the age of 84

(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 28, 2014, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is pushed in his wheelchair as he arrives for his inauguration ceremony as he takes the oath of office as Algerian president for a fourth term in Algiers. – Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika died on September 17, 2021 at the age of 84, state television said, citing a presidential statement. (Photo by Farouk Batiche / AFP)

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ruled Algeria for two decades before stepping down in 2019 as huge protests engulfed the country, has died aged 84, state television reported.

The former strongman left office in April 2019 under pressure from the army, after weeks of protests against his candidacy for a fifth term.

After resigning, he remained out of sight of the public in a residence west of Algiers.

The news of his death on Friday evening sparked little reaction in the North African country, reflecting how his absence had put him out of action to harm the public interest.

The Algerian national flag flies at half mast in the capital Algiers on September 18, 2021, following the death of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. (Photo by RYAD KRAMDI / AFP)

A statement by his successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune highlighted Bouteflika’s past as a fighter in the war for independence from France and said the flags would be half-masted for three days to pay tribute to him.

But in the streets of the capital Algiers, many residents told AFP that the formidable former president would not be missed.

“Bless his soul. But he does not deserve any tribute because he did nothing for the country, ”said greengrocer Rabah.

Malek, a telecoms worker, said Bouteflika “was unable to reform the country despite his long reign”.

Even state broadcasters limited their coverage to news of his death, without running special bulletins about his legacy.

The Sabqpress news site said the funeral would be held on Sunday at El-Alia cemetery east of the capital where his predecessors and other independence fighters are buried.

There was no immediate confirmation from the authorities.

“Absolute President”

Bouteflika became president of Algeria in 1999 as the former French colony was emerging from a decade of civil war that left nearly 200,000 dead.

He was then elected for three more consecutive five-year terms, most recently in 2014.

Nicknamed “Boutef” by the Algerians, he gained respect as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 1970s and then for having contributed to peace after the civil war, in particular with an amnesty law which pushed thousands of fighters Islamists to surrender their weapons.

“It was well received in countries around the world, and the country got better when Bouteflika became president,” said kitchen porter Amer, 46.

Journalist Farid Alilat, who has written a biography of Bouteflika, asserts that at the height of his reign in the early 2000s, the president had “all the levers of power”.

Above all, he was supported by the army and the intelligence services.

“He has become an absolute president,” Alilat told AFP.

Algeria was largely untouched by the wave of uprisings that swept across the Arab world in 2011, with much attributing to still painful memories of the civil war – as well as increasing state handouts – to containing the tensions.

But Bouteflika’s reign was marked by corruption, leaving many Algerians wondering how a country with vast oil riches could end up with poor infrastructure and high unemployment that has driven many young people abroad.

“He had a very comfortable life, even after being ousted from power. But it is clear that his heritage is not the brightest, ”said carpenter Mohamed, 46 years old.

Poor health and protests

In his later years, Bouteflika’s poor health began to weigh on his credibility as a leader.

Despite a mini-stroke in April 2013 that affected his speech and forced him to use a wheelchair, he decided to run for a fourth term despite growing public doubts about his ability to govern.

His 2019 candidacy for a fifth term sparked angry protests that quickly turned into a pro-democracy movement known as Hirak.

When he lost the support of the army, he was forced to resign.

The Hirak mass protests continued, with demands for a complete overhaul of the system in power in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962.

Some key figures of the Bouteflika era were ultimately jailed in corruption cases, including Bouteflika’s powerful brother Said, but the long-sought changes did not happen.

Bouteflika’s successor, Tebboune, was elected at the end of 2019 with a record turnout, with the Hirak calling for a boycott.

A referendum on a constitutional amendment seen as aimed at torpedoing the Hirak attracted even less interest from voters.

But the protest movement has been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic and has struggled to regain momentum as the government clamps down on the opposition.

According to the group of prisoners CNLD, approximately 200 people are in prison in connection with the Hirak or for individual freedoms.

And with the old guard of the Bouteflika era still largely ruling the country, the legacy of two decades of his rule is mixed.

“All his life, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been driven by two obsessions: to take power and keep it at all costs,” said Alilat.

“But it was this obsession … that sparked the revolt that ousted him from power.”

AFP


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Karl M. Bailey

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