Algiers, Asharq Al-Awsat—President Abdulaziz Bouteflika’s recent mini-stroke, which resulted in him being flown to France for urgent medical treatment, has renewed the controversy surrounding the political future of the country, including the possible transition of power.
A significant number of Algerians are convinced that the president’s health will impede his chances of securing a fourth term in office at the forthcoming elections scheduled for spring 2014. Moreover, some politicians have started to suggest that there may even be a transition of power before the elections, given the intensifying controversy around Article 88 of the constitution, which asserts that the presidency be left vacant in the case of extreme illness.
Algerian decision-makers closely monitoring the situation in the country underscore that the president’s most recent ailment is one of several that he has suffered from in recent years, with the previous illnesses not being discussed publicly. However this time, the president’s office was quick to make an unprecedented official announcement, leading to a flood of speculation. Some believe that the president’s illness has undone his aspirations of securing a fourth term in power, while others think that it may actually present a campaigning opportunity. On his return from Paris, President Bouteflika will be greeted with much fanfare and celebrations where supporters will, no doubt, call for a fourth term. This could all set the stage for a run in the upcoming elections.
Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Soufiane Djilali, president of the opposition Jil Jadid Party (New Generation Party) and leader of a group opposed to the nomination of Bouteflika for a fourth successive term, said that the president’s physical ailments prevent him from continuing to govern. He added that if Bouteflika truly does relinquish his grip on power, this would prevent the beneficiaries of his policies from continuing to loot the country’s wealth.
Djilali stated that Algeria now faces four possible scenarios.
He said, “The first [possible scenario] is the president recovering, which would allow him to continue to govern until the end of his term. He would then hold presidential elections and transfer power to someone else,” adding, “I think this is an unlikely scenario.”
“The second possible scenario is that the president would return to the helm of governance, but would announce early elections due to his poor health. The third scenario is that the president’s health condition remains the same, in which case the presidency will be announced as vacant and elections will be held in accordance with the constitution,” Djilali said.
The Algerian opposition leader emphasized that “the worst possible scenario would be that Bouteflika makes a full recovery and secures a fourth term for himself.”
The president has been in France since April 27 where he has been receiving treatment for a reported mini-stroke. According to the doctors who advised his family to move him to Paris for medical treatment, the stroke caused no permanent damage. Bouteflika is being treated at the same hospital where he underwent surgery in 2005.
Djilali clarified that he has been contemplating Bouteflika seeking a fourth presidential term in office since the news that he had flown to Paris for medical treatment, stressing that Bouteflika even standing for re-election would be disastrous for the country.
For months, Soufiane Djilali has led a campaign against the continuation of Bouteflika’s rule, launching a so-called Front Against the Fourth Term in coordination with former Prime Minister Ahmed Benbitour and revolutionary figure Mohamed Mechati.
Over the years, President Bouteflika and those around him have dealt with news regarding his health in a methodical manner, and every time there was public speculation about his health, he would appear on camera to deny the news. Those following the president’s illness have pointed to two events. The first was when the president was transferred to Ain Al Naaja Military Hospital in the capital to visit Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi who was also ill. Following this episode, rumors about the president’s death spread quickly.
The second incident was when he hosted the family of French Algerian soccer player Zinedine Zidane, along with his own two brothers Moustafa and Said, at the presidential residence at Janan Al Mufti. This time the rumors purported that both the president and his brother Moustafa had passed away. These rumors spread quickly and were not limited to Algeria. Just a few weeks later, the president’s brother Moustafa died of cancer.
In political and media circles, there is a nearly unanimous agreement that the political scandals which the pressed covered in the past involving the president’s brother and adviser Said have seriously affected Bouteflika psychologically and his already deteriorating health.
What makes this most recent incident remarkable is that this is the first time the authorities have officially revealed the nature of Bouteflika’s illness. At the end of 2005, for example, the president’s office issued a statement that Bouteflika had traveled to France for in-depth medical exams which revealed stomach bleeding; news that in turn sparked rumors that he had contracted cancer, which the authorities were quick to deny. Bouteflika’s medical file has remained a state secret for seven and a half years, but it has officially entered the public arena as rumors about his illness continue to fill the newspaper pages.
The announcement and official disclosure of the president’s illness have raised the controversial issue of succession and who is qualified to lead the country.
Anouar Malek, an Algerian political analyst living in France, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “President Bouteflika’s health is not good; this is a foregone conclusion. His health has been deteriorating since the surgery he underwent in France at the end of 2005. His health issues might end his plans to run for a fourth term, and therefore he must address this issue before the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for the spring of next year.”
Malek, a former military officer, added, “My guess is that Bouteflika will not step down because this would bring down many figures who benefit from his regime…and others who have partaken in corrupt practices during his [14 year] rule. Such widespread corruption was not present even during Chadli Bendjedid’s presidency (1979-1992), which was characterized by rampant corruption. The same goes for the Red Decade, during which the Algerian people’s only concerns were to save their own necks.”
The ‘Red Decade’ in Algeria refers to the 1990s when terrorism claimed more than 150,000 lives, according to official accounts.
Malek emphasized, “There is, without a doubt, an orientation towards the top of the pyramid of power. Those with power do not want a fourth term for Bouteflika, but these people do not have the power to threaten the stronger side which wants him to remain in Al-Maradiya Palace (the presidential residence). It is evident that there is conflict, and several leaders such as (former prime minister) Ahmed Ouyahia have fallen. Even those besmirched with charges of corruption are considered part of President Bouteflika’s inner circle. The most realistic scenario, in my opinion, is that the supporters of a fourth term will succeed, despite the president’s deteriorating health. However, death or some other unforeseen event remains a possibility.”
For his part, Algerian political analyst Larbi Zouak mentioned that this is not the first time that President Bouteflika was flown abroad for treatment, but this is the first time that this was officially commented on by the prime minister.
He said, “This means that we are facing a situation similar to what happened in 2005, when he underwent surgery and remained hospitalized for several months.”
Zouak also stressed that the people of Algeria should take other considerations into account; the president’s poor health which has deteriorated since 2005; the turmoil spreading across the country which even the authorities have acknowledged; rampant corruption; and unrest in southern Algeria.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The entire world has witnessed change recently, except for Algeria and North Korea. More ominous than all of this is that Bouteflika’s term is coming to an end, and everything hinges on the question on everyone’s mind: Will the president run for a fourth term?”
Zouak, known for his writings against the president’s policies, stated, “Those who know Bouteflika’s mindset claim that he is not prepared to step down as long as he is able to move, and that he will definitely run for office even if he is not able to leave his house or campaign. It is enough for him to give a speech on television. However, is Algeria so devoid of strength that it cannot stand up to a sickly man?”
“Bouteflika has certainly succeeded in transforming the political arena into an arid desert. He also shrunk the military establishment to the point that some Algerians have begun to wonder if they can depend on such a small number of troops if the situation in the country deteriorated. The truth is that there is huge difference between the military establishment of the 1990s and the military establishment today, and personally I doubt that this establishment can prevent Bouteflika from running…even if he were bedridden,” he added.
Zouak conceded, “In terms of alternatives to Bouteflika, personally I do not see anyone qualified to become president. If Bouteflika does run, his competitors would run to merely legitimize the electoral campaign, as happened in the last presidential elections. In Algeria, we are used to presidential election results being settled in advance for whomever the authorities choose. If Bouteflika does not run, then the authorities will naturally choose someone else. But if no developments take place and Bouteflika becomes incapacitated and unable to even appear on television, then personally I think Ahmed Ouyahia (former prime minister) or Ali Benflis (former prime minister) or Cherif Rahmani (current Minister of Industry) or to a lesser extent Ahmed Benbitour (former prime minister) could be chosen.I put Ahmed Benbitour at the tail end, seeing that he is the only one who is self-reliant.”
However Zouak stressed that “this can only happen in the event that Bouteflika’s becomes completely incapacitated. As for what happens if he is partially incapacitated, meaning he would not run but has some say in nominating the next candidate, I would wager on Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal; I can say for sure that he has both the army’s and Bouteflika’s approval.”
Rachid Tlemçani, Professor of Political Science at the University of Algiers, said, “The announcement of the president’s illness represents an unusual break from protocol, the goal of which is to prepare public opinion for the succession of Bouteflika.”
He added, “Before his mini-stroke, the president was committed to running for a fourth term, to the point that his supporters were preparing nominate him at the final event of the Algerian Cup between MC Alger and USM Alger on Wednesday.”
However, after this most recent health scare, the facts have changed. In the event that the president completes his third term but is not nominated for a fourth, Tlemçani explained that Algeria could enter a period of democratic transition and that the political arena would be open for the first time in Algeria’s history. Moreover, he said that the Black Bureau (enforcers of Algeria’s political decision makers) will no longer be able to select the regime candidate or fragment the army into different groups.
Ahmed Azimi, a former military officer and political analyst, stated that Bouteflika could call for early presidential elections as his predecessor Liamine Zéroual did in 1998. Azimi emphasized that the president’s age and his health concerns would most likely not allow him to seek a fourth term in office in 2014, saying, “If he chooses to stay until the end of his term, he will want to have some say in the selection of his successor, but I think that Algerian officials are not prepared to hold transparent presidential elections. Nothing is certain.”