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Absences of Algeria's enigmatic president: sick leave or strategy to hang on to power?

Absences of Algeria's enigmatic president: sick leave or strategy to hang on to power?

Now you see him. Now you don't.
Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika falls out of sight for weeks at a time, and was notably silent when suicide bombs tore through two important buildings in Algiers, one housing U.N. offices. That rang alarm bells about his health and questions about his political plans for a country he has sought to stabilize.
Is the 70-year-old Bouteflika, who has been treated for a stomach ailment, still sick? Or is this a strategy to prolong his presidency? Or is it something more cryptic?
Such enigmatic disappearing acts apparently add to Bouteflika's charisma. A powerful faction within Algeria's political elite is clamoring for him to run for a third term in 2009 _ an issue that even the stunning Dec. 11 bombings and their 37 victims could not knock out of the news.
Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni suggested a link between the two. A day after the attacks, he told Chaine 1 radio there was a "probable" tie between the bombings _ claimed by Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa _ and the debate over a third term for Bouteflika, a firm U.S. ally in the war on terror.
The minister pointed to the bombing of the Constitutional Council, which must validate any changes to the constitution _ needed for Bouteflika to seek a third term.
Between the murky world of Algerian politics, where powerful clans hold sway, and the nebulous realm of terrorism, nothing seems excluded.
"By not reacting to the attacks, the head of state accentuated the sense of abandon of the population," the daily El Watan commented. "They don't understand that security comes second to the 'third presidential mandate.'"
The growing anxiety over whether Bouteflika, in office since 1999, could extend his mandate reflects the uncertainties gripping this gas-rich North African nation. It is trying to overcome 15 years of terrorism, modernize its state-centered economy and feed and house its growing population _ all without upsetting the special interests within the power structure.
"The big uncertainty here now is not a third mandate but who would take over after" Bouteflika, said Robert P. Parks, director of the research center in the western city of Oran for the American Institute for Maghreb Studies.
"He's brought stability, he has diminished terrorism, he has reinserted Algeria into the international diplomatic arena," Parks said by telephone. "And Algeria is much richer today than in 1999," when Bouteflika took office.
The country gasped when Bouteflika narrowly escaped a Sept. 6 bomb attack in the eastern city of Batna that killed at least 22 people waiting to see the visiting president. The press says the president, who arrived late, was the target.
The incident raised the level of concern about who could replace him with few potential candidates around. Among names floated are former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia or another former prime minister known as a reformist, Mouloud Hamrouche.
For nearly four decades after Algeria won independence from France in a brutal war, army generals called the shots, directly or from off-stage. Except for Algeria's first president in 1962, Ahmed Ben Bella, appointed then ousted by the army, Bouteflika has been the country's only civilian leader.
He is a proven political survivor who has made no secret of his wish to change the constitution to allow for a "strong presidency," and a third term. The president is currently limited to two five-year terms.
The leading party in the governing coalition, the National Liberation Front, or FLN, has pushed for months for a constitutional change. With Bouteflika its president and Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem its secretary general, the FLN _ the sole party for nearly 30 years, until 1989 _ is well-placed to get its way.
But health issues raise questions.
Bouteflika was rushed to France in 2005 with what was said to be a bleeding ulcer. But doubts were raised about the real nature of his illness with observers, including doctors, concluding that he may suffer from stomach cancer.
This month's double suicide bombings added to the doubts.
The al-Qaida affiliate which took responsibility for the bombings grew out of an Islamic insurgency movement, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, trying to topple the state.
For the interior minister, the two are "the same" organization trying to attack the democratic process in Algeria.
Bouteflika reappeared several days after the bombings to accept official condolences for the attacks, and later met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Newspapers showed Bouteflika in photos but so far have had not a word to quote.
A year ago, Bouteflika conceded he had been "very ill" but recovered and was "absolutely fabulous." He asked the press to drop the subject.
"I think Bouteflika thinks he's immortal. I have no doubt that if he is fit, or he feels he's fit, that he will run" for a third term if the proposal to change the constitution gets full backing, said Jon Marks, editor of the monthly Algeria Focus and an Algeria watcher for 27 years.
"There will be internal political disputes, some of those could get extremely nasty, but he will run."


Updated : 2020-12-04 22:53 GMT+08:00