"Honor the dead by burying them, not electing them president”: how Algeria’s ailing leader fell from grace

Wednesday 6 March 201909:08 am
A famous ancient Arabic adage goes: “Dignify the dead by burying them”. In modern-day Algeria however, the phrase has been subject to a slight - but nonetheless crucial - amendment: “Dignify the dead by burying them, not electing them president”. It was with this motto that one Algerian citizen joined the crowds of thousands of his countrymen and women, who in the past few days have broken out in rare protest following the ‘newest’ declared bid for re-election of the country’s elderly incumbent president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika – 82-years of age, and in power since 1999. The sentiment expressed stems in no small part from the fact that President Bouteflika has been suffering a terminal (and likely incurable) illness for many a year now, one that has paralysed him (leaving him in a wheelchair) and even, some observers say, taken away his power of speech. The president’s incapacity has long prompted questions amongst the country’s 40 million citizens as to who the actual ruler of Africa’s largest state is – the mysterious shadowy power now pushing for a fifth consecutive term in office for the frontman in the wheelchair. Notwithstanding the ailing state he finds himself in today, however, Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s virile past contrasts considerably with his present, incapacitated reality. Born on March 2, 1937 in the Moroccan city of Oujda (to which his father had immigrated from the family’s hometown in Tlemcen, North West Algeria), Bouteflika joined the ranks of the Algerian resistance during the country’s war of independence from Colonial France. He would later assume leadership roles in the country’s post-independence revolutionary government, as well as leading Algerian diplomacy during the Cold War era. Receiving both his primary and secondary education in Morocco, Abdelaziz Bouteflika obtained his primary schooling certificate (as well as a certificate for supplementary Islamic studies) in 1948 from the Sidi Ziyan and al-Hussainiya primary schools – before continuing his secondary education in the Abd El-Mu’men and Omar Abdel Aziz secondary schools, successfully attaining his general secondary certificate. He would however cut short his education at the age of nineteen to join the ranks of the Algerian National Liberation Army (ALN), the military arm of the National Liberation Front (FLN) – which continues to rule Algeria to this day. Assuming several military and political roles both during the anti-colonial struggle and after, he was appointed as Comptroller General of the Wilaya Number 5 (territorial units and military regions established by the FLN - numbering six across the country, and, including mainland France, seven in total) in 1957 and 1958, tasked with reporting on the condition of West Algeria and the bordering regions with Morocco, before being subsequently promoted to the rank of officer in the fourth and seventh regions of the same Wilaya. He would subsequently join the Command Centre for military operations; the Chief of Staff for Western Algeria; and the General Chiefs of Staff respectively - before finally being sent to the country’s southern borders in 1960 to lead the Mali front against France. Following Algeria’s independence in 1962, Bouteflika would move into the sphere of politics – first through election to the country’s first Constituent Assembly, as well as the Central Committee of the FLN (and membership of its political bureau) in 1964. During the leadership of President Houari Boumédiène, Bouteflika would make a name for himself as one of the most prominent political figures in the FLN, assuming numerous high-level executive roles. Bouteflika would soon gain entry into the Revolutionary Council – the country’s highest authority at the time – before taking on the posts of Youth and Tourism Minister in 1962, and Foreign Minister in 1963 – the latter in which he would remain until the death of Boumédiène in 1978. Algerian diplomacy was particularly noted by its vitality during this period, earning for itself a reputation for defending ‘third world’ causes and supporting anti-colonial liberation movements. Following Boumédiène’s death however, Bouteflika would depart the spotlight –leaving Algeria in 1981 and only returning in 1987. It would be more than a decade later (a period which would encompass both the start and end of a civil war) that Bouteflika would announce his first candidacy for president, running as an ‘independent’ candidate in 1998. Perhaps indicative of the false hope that many believed would define his reign, he was initially to be faced in his first election with six other contestants – however, they would all withdraw their candidacies the day before the election. Bouteflika was duly elected president on April 15, 1998, gaining 70% of votes according to official figures. He ran for re-election the first time in 2004, this time with the backing of a political coalition – gaining 85% of votes – before changing the constitution to allow his candidacy for a third term in 2009. In what political observers had become accustomed to predicting as a foregone conclusion, he would finally pass the 90% mark on his third attempt, achieving 90.25% of the vote. During his election for a fourth term in 2014, his vote percentage would drop to a mere 80% however – in an election which was boycotted by the opposition, and which would symbolically offer what would become a (in)famous image of Bouteflika casting his vote on a wheelchair – a scene which provoked many a jibe across the Arab world, with many considering it to be an apt description of their own political incapacity. With or without a wheelchair, however, Bouteflika would be personally absent when Algerian TV finally declared Bouteflika’s nomination for a fifth presidential term on March 3rd 2019 – having, perhaps fittingly, considering increasing questions as to the identity of Algeria’s real shadowy rulers - departed the country altogether to receive medical treatment in Geneva.
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