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Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika died Friday at the age of 84 after years of ill health.
After a crippling stroke in 2013, Bouteflika withdrew from the public eye. In 2014, he earned the moniker of “the ghost president” when he was elected to a fourth straight term — without even appearing in person on the campaign trail.
Bouteflika’s place of birth remains with certainty unknown, as his official biography did not mention a location. However, according to historians, Bouteflika was born in 1937 in Oujda, Morocco, into a modest family.
Even his exact role in Algeria’s war of independence against France is not known for certain, although Bouteflika reportedly joined the National Liberation Army, the military branch of the National Liberation Front (FLN), in 1956 at the age of 19.
His death at the age of 84 marks the end of an era for Algeria. After two decades in power, he resigned in April 2019 after street demonstrations broke out against his plan to pursue a fifth term in office.
Bouteflika, a protege of former Algerian leader Houari Boumediene, belonged to a generation of leaders who have ruled Algeria since it gained independence. In 1962, Bouteflika served in Algeria’s first post-colonial government as Minister of Youth and Sports. A year later, at the age of 26, he was appointed foreign minister, becoming the youngest person in the world to hold such a position.
During his years in office, Bouteflika emerged as a towering figure both in Arab politics and the Non-Aligned Movement. He received the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in Algiers in 1974. That same year, he ordered the expulsion of South African officials from Algeria in protest against the apartheid system.
Bouteflika was respected in the Newly Independent States around the world, but Bouteflika was also appreciated in Europe.
“Elegant and well-dressed, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was called the ‘dandy diplomat’ in Western countries. He held this position brilliantly,” FLN MP Samira Bouras Kerkouche told Al Jazeera.
When then-President Boumediene lost his life to a rare blood disease in 1978, he left a power vacuum that Bouteflika wanted to fill. But Chadli Bendjedid, a former defense minister with strong military backing, seized power in 1979 and forced Bouteflika out of the political arena.
Two years later, Bouteflika was convicted of embezzling more than $23 million from Algeria’s embassies. In his defense, he claimed the money was merely “reserved” to build a new building for his ministry. Though granted an amnesty, Bouteflika spent the next two decades in luxurious exile between Switzerland and the Gulf States, reportedly a multimillionaire at the time.
Bouteflika returned to Algeria’s political scene in 1999, with military support. At the time, Algerians were still traumatized by the atrocities committed during the so-called ‘black decade’, in which nearly 150,000 Algerians were killed in a civil war between rebels and the government.
“Bouteflika was once again invited to the inner circle by a group of generals, who introduced him as the providential leader who could end the protracted civil conflict in Algeria that erupted in the wake of the Islamists’ electoral victory in 1992,” Amel said. Boubekeur, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
The sole candidate for president — the six other candidates withdrew, claiming the election would be rigged, though their names remained on the ballot — Bouteflika was elected president in 1999 with 74 percent of the vote, according to the official results.
Five months later, Bouteflika held a referendum on the Law of Civil Concord, a peace agreement that offered amnesty to rebels willing to lay down their weapons. The newly elected president received widespread popular support, with more than 98 percent voting for the bill. Most former combatants agreed, although some fled underground.
“Islamic terrorism has been almost completely defeated in Algeria under President Bouteflika, but it is [hasn’t been] completely wiped out with the growing presence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] and Jund al-Khilafa, a group affiliated with [ISIL]said Aomar Baghzouz, a law professor at Tizi Ouzou University.
Speaking at the 2015 FIKRA conference in Algiers, former UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who regularly visited the president of Algeria, said Bouteflika will be remembered for bringing much-needed stability to Algeria and transforming the North African state. into a major player in the region by hosting conflict peace talks, as he did in Mali and Libya.
Bouteflika’s government enjoyed international support for its support of the so-called “war on terror”, and the country’s immense oil and natural gas reserves.
“It is clear that Western countries are turning a blind eye” [to] both Bouteflika’s fragile health and evidence of electoral fraud, as they have a vital stake in Algeria’s reliability and status quo,” said Abdelaziz Rahabi, Algeria’s former Minister of Communications.
‘Scandal of the Century’
As an oil-rich country, Algeria saw a modernization of its infrastructure under President Bouteflika. However, the development has been accompanied by allegations of widespread corruption.
The construction of the East-West Highway, which was launched in 2006 and dubbed the ‘project of the century’, instead became known as the ‘scandal of the century’. The highway connecting Algeria’s borders with Tunisia and Morocco was initially valued at $7 billion, but the price tag rose to $13 billion, leading many to suspect the money had been divided into bribes.
In 2015, an Algerian court sentenced 14 people to prison terms and fined seven foreign companies for corruption, money laundering and misappropriation of government funds.
Bouteflika’s long rule was marked by the explosion of corruption in Algeria. The country was ranked 100th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2014. Other high-profile corruption cases involving Algerian officials and foreign companies further rocked the country during Bouteflika’s fourth term in office.
However, with military and international support, Bouteflika easily won landslide electoral victories in 2004 and 2009, against relatively unknown challengers. His third and fourth terms in office were made possible by a 2008 constitutional amendment that lifted presidential term limits, a move labeled by the opposition as a setback to democracy.
“Bouteflika had always wanted to concentrate all his forces in his hand and refused, as he said, to be ‘three quarters president’,” explains former Algerian Prime Minister Ali Benflis. “Bouteflika gave herself the option [of] remain head of state for life.”
Bouteflika indeed maintained his grip on power through repression, nepotism and vote buying, experts say. In 2011, under pressure from the Arab Spring protests in the region, Bouteflika lifted the state of emergency that had been in place for 19 years. Nevertheless, the Algerian police continued to disperse almost all the demonstrations that took place in the country.
Experts cite two main reasons why Bouteflika survived the Arab Spring: First, his government managed to convince the public through propaganda that only she could prevent Algeria from sliding into chaos. “After the ‘black decade’, Algerians [were] reluctant to call for dramatic change and give high priority to stability and security,” Nacer Djabi, a sociology lecturer at the University of Algiers, told Al Jazeera.
In addition, the Bouteflika government, financed by oil revenues, could have bought social peace by providing subsidies and aid.
“Oil prices [had] rose during Bouteflika’s years in power. Instead of developing the country, oil wealth… both spread corruption and helped maintain the political status quo,” said Sofiane Djilali, the founder of the opposition party Jil Jadid, or “New Generation.”
“Bouteflika’s longevity in power shows the resilience of a system that wants to lead the ‘change’ it wants, whenever it wants. But the reduction in Algeria’s financial reserves raises questions about its ability to withstand such [a] crisis,” explains Baghzouz.
According to Boubekeur, Algeria’s longest-serving leader was always looking for his own interests.
“At the beginning of his career, Bouteflika was considered a socialist activist… The truth is that Bouteflika never believed in an ideological and political project and was only motivated by both money and power. He doesn’t leave any mindset behind.”
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