Abdelaziz Bouteflika ALGIERS: Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ruled Algeria for two decades before resigning in 2019 as huge protests engulfed the country, has died aged 84, public television announced. The former strongman had left office in April 2019 under pressure from the military, following weeks of demonstrations over his bid to run for a fifth term in office. After quitting, he had stayed out of the public eye at a residence in western Algiers.
The announcement of his death late Friday evening triggered little reaction in the North African country, reflecting how his absence had stamped him out of public interest. A statement from his successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune noted Bouteflika’s past as a fighter in the war for independence from France and said flags would be lowered to half mast for three days to honor him.
But on the streets of the capital Algiers, many residents told AFP the once-formidable president would not be missed. “Bless his soul. But he doesn’t deserve any tribute because he did nothing for the country,” said greengrocer Rabah. Malek, a telecoms employee, said Bouteflika “was incapable of reforming the country despite his long rule”.
Even state broadcasters limited their coverage to the news of his death, without running special bulletins on his legacy. Sabqpress news website said the funeral would take place today at the El-Alia cemetery east of the capital where his predecessors and other independence fighters are buried. There was no immediate confirmation from authorities.
Bouteflika became president of Algeria in 1999 as the former French colony emerged from a decade of civil war that killed nearly 200,000 people. He went on to be elected for three more consecutive five-year terms, most recently in 2014. Dubbed “Boutef” by Algerians, he won respect as a foreign minister in the 1970s and then for helping foster peace after the civil war, notably with an amnesty law that prompted thousands of Islamist fighters to hand in their weapons.
“He was welcomed in countries around the world, and the country improved when Bouteflika became president,” said kitchen porter Amer, 46. Journalist Farid Alilat, who has written a biography of Bouteflika, says that at the height of his rule in the early 2000s, the president had “all the levers of power”. Crucially, he was backed by the army and the intelligence services. “He became an absolute president,” Alilat told AFP.
Algeria was largely spared the wave of uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011, with many crediting still-painful memories of the civil war – as well as a boost in state handouts – for keeping a lid on tensions. But Bouteflika’s rule was marked by corruption, leaving many Algerians wondering how a country with vast oil wealth could end up with poor infrastructure and high unemployment that pushed many young people overseas. “He had a very comfortable life, even after he was ousted from power. But we have to admit that his legacy isn’t the most glowing”, said carpenter Mohamed, 46.
In his later years, Bouteflika’s ill health started weighing on his credibility as a leader. Despite suffering a mini-stroke in April 2013 that affected his speech and forced him to use a wheelchair, he decided to seek a fourth mandate despite growing public doubts about his ability to rule. His bid in 2019 for a fifth term sparked angry protests that soon grew into a pro-democracy movement known as Hirak.
When he lost the backing of the army, he was forced to step down. The Hirak mass protests continued, with demands for a full overhaul of the ruling system in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. Some key Bouteflika-era figures were eventually jailed in corruption cases, including Bouteflika’s powerful brother Said, but the long-sought changes did not happen.
Bouteflika’s successor Tebboune was elected in late 2019 on record low turnout, with the Hirak calling for a boycott. A referendum on a constitutional amendment seen as aiming to torpedo the Hirak generated even less interest from voters. But the protest movement was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic and has struggled to regain momentum as the government cracks down on opposition.
According to the CNLD prisoners’ group, around 200 people are in jail in connection with the Hirak or over individual freedoms. And with the Bouteflika-era old guard still largely ruling the country, the legacy of two decades of his rule is mixed. “For his entire life, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was driven by two obsessions: take power and keep it at any price,” said Alilat. “But it was this obsession… that sparked the revolt that drove him from power.” – AFP