A veteran of the independence movement, Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid to run for a fifth presidential term proved to be his downfall. By Rita Hernandes
For Algerians it was a real slap in the face. Felled by a stroke and barely able to walk or talk, their president of 20 years, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced in February that he was going to run for a fifth term.
Tens of thousands poured out onto the streets in protest calling on the 82-year-old to withdraw his candidacy. He eventually did but the mass demonstrations continued. On April 2 he stepped down as president but, fed up with years of corruption and state repression, people want his inner circle to quit as well as they march through the streets demanding “radical change”.
It is quite a turnaround for a country that during the 1960s was once host to liberation movements from around the world following its armed overthrow of French colonial rule. This is where Bouteflika began his steady ascent into Algerian politics, joining the military wing of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1956 during the bloody war of independence.
The young Bouteflika quickly rose through FLN ranks and was appointed minister of youth, sports and tourism at the age of 25 in Algeria’s first post-independence government led by Ben Bella. In 1963, he became the world’s youngest minister of foreign affairs – a record that he still holds to this day – and Eldridge Cleaver and Che Guevara were among the fellow radicals he welcomed to Algeria. Nelson Mandela came too and was offered military training.
Despite its revolutionary fervour, deep divisions in the government saw Bella ousted in 1965. A trusted ally of the new leader, Houari Boumediene, Bouteflika retained his post and in 1967 caused an international stir when broke diplomatic relations with the US over its role in the Six Day War against Israel.
In 1974, he was appointed president of the UN General Assembly and in an unprecedented move invited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to address it for the first time.
However, his political career looked like it was coming to an abrupt end when corruption charges forced him to go into self-imposed exile in 1981. He returned to Algeria in 1987 and was soon readmitted to the FLN’s central committee. Algeria’s fortunes, though, took a turn for the worse as the FLN’s efforts to hang on to power in 1991 via annulled elections sparked a 10-year civil war in which an estimated 150,000 people were killed.
After turning down the opportunity to run for presidency, Bouteflika eventually agreed to do so in 1999, winning a landslide victory. He is credited with ending the civil war and rebuilding the country and its shattered economy, helped in no small measure by record high oil prices. But there were accusations that the president’s family and inner circle were benefitting financially from the massive construction projects taking place.
In 2008, the president changed the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office. When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011 ousting his fellow heads of state in Tunisia and Egypt, Bouteflika was able to use the country’s vast oil wealth and fears of a return to civil strife to stay in power.
By 2012, it appeared he was ready to step down. “My generation is finished,” he said in a speech. “Our time is over. Our time is over. Our time is over.”
However, despite suffering a stroke in 2013 that confined him to a wheelchair, Bouteflika announced would stand again. His election victory speech in 2014 was to become his last public address. After that he was rarely seen in public, prompting accusations that he was president in name only.
Astonishingly, despite the wave of anger over his attempted fifth term, Bouteflika offered, via a letter read out on state TV, talks and constitutional reform in the event of his re-election as a way forward. When this did not quell protests, he said he would withdraw his candidacy but stay on as leader until the election to ensure a peaceful transition. This did not work either and Bouteflika appeared, probably for the last time, before TV cameras to offer his resignation after Algeria’s powerful army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaed Salah, declared that he was unfit for office.
Abdelkader Bensalah, the speaker of the upper house of parliament, has been appointed interim president until elections are held in June but the demonstrations are still going on. Protesters have vowed to continue piling on the pressure until the whole political system, in which the military plays a significant role, is overhauled.
One man, Selmaoui Seddik, told Reuters: “God willing, we will have a 100 per cent democratic transition, this is very important. We need to remove the whole previous regime and that is the hardest thing.”
Another said. “This is just a little victory - the biggest is still to come.”