It is hard to imagine behind the inert, swollen mask of the disabled old man glimpsed in the past few years, Abdelaziz Bouteflika in his youth. His principal asset was his power of seduction. Charming, brilliant, talkative, his priority always seemed to be to win his listeners over to his ideas; he made his friends laugh and fascinated his admirers, male and female with his blue eyes and the smile of a Hollywood star.
Luck was on the side of this young Algerian born at Oujda in Morocco in 1937. At 19, twenty months after the beginning of the armed insurrection, he was conscripted in June 1956 like all the Algerians of the Sherifian Kingdom by order of the fearsome commander of the wilaya 5, Abdelhafid Boussouf. The military instructor, one Houari Boudienne, turned him down, deeming him too short. He was sent to do an internship as overseer of the maquis in Oranie, across the border and to inform the hierarchy of what was happening on the ground. He spent less than four months there and was more fortunate than his companion who was killed. In August 1957, Boussouf’s successor, who was none other than Boumediene, was in search of a secretary “knowing how to write” to draft his orders and recruited Bouteflika. He was to be attached to him for over two decades, until his death.
He soon became specialised in external relations, organising a second front against the French army in Mali or trying to convince “historic” leaders, jailed in France to rally round Boumediene. An eminent member of the “Oujda clan,” which brought together five former cadres of wilaya 5 to shoot the bull and smoke Cuban cigars, a gift from Fidel Castro, he was to owe Boumediene his career. Elected MP from Tlemcen, Minister of Youth at the moment of independence in 1962, he became Minister of Foreign Affairs following the assassination of his predecessor by a madman who turned out to have been manipulated.
Young Abdelaziz was not a glutton for work. The life of a bureaucrat held no interest for him, he was rarely seen in his office, nor did he read diplomatic telegrams but his forte was personal relations and he built a team of devotees unfailingly faithful to their boss. But there was bad blood between Bouteflika the President of the time Ahmed Ben Bella, who conducted a parallel diplomacy, infringed on his competencies and wanted to fire him. This was to be one of the causes of the 19 June 1965 coup. He kept his portfolio and took advantage of the temporary discredit of the military regime to travel, live it up and present himself to the outside world as the voice of Algerie. In 1970 he undertook negotiations with Paris on the issue of Algerian oil. They were a failure and the nationalisation of 24 February 1971 was the work of the Energy Minister, Belaid Abdeslam and his technocrats. In passing, an aging French ambassador, very old school, has painted a cruel portrait of a Rastignac in a hurry with limited knowledge and much too pushy with the ladies.
Exiled to the UN
The seventies would be difficult for the young minister. After Boumediene’s marriage, the Oujda clan fell apart. Following the 1973 summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Algiers, the President became one of the major figures of the Third World and his minister took a back seat, all the more so as, along with other leaders he did not approve the agrarian reform and the regime’s turn to the left. In 1974 he was made president of the UN General Assembly—a position of prestige—and settled in New York for a whole year. There, by sheer bluff, he managed to get hold of the best suite in the luxury Hotel Pierre right from under the nose of its usual, tenant, Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. He returned to Algiers less and less frequently; “He’s sulking,” said his friends whom he urged to criticise the regime. Already.
With the death of Boumediene in 1978, as the dead man’s recognised lieutenant he claimed the right to succeed him, but in vain. It was indeed he who delivered the funeral eulogy at El-Alia cemetery, surrounded by a huge crowd but was knocked out of the running by the head of the security forces, Kasdi Merbah who imposed instead a dilettante colonel. Soon accused of corruption, he left Algiers the follow year and retained a painful memory of that failure. His mother was evicted from the family villa and his two brothers, younger than himself by twenty years, were ostracised. This was the beginning of a nomadic life spent between Paris, Geneva and Abu Dhabi where he became friendly with the father of the Emirates’ current strong man, Mohamed Ben Zayed who rolled out the red carpet for him.
The outcast was not to forget this generosity and will more than repay the Emirates when he returned to power in 1999.
Resisting the liberalisation of the regime
In 1987, when he was finally allowed to return to Algeria, he did not appreciate the turn things had taken: the liberalisation of the regime, the authorisation of a press not under state control, the multiparty system were not to his liking. He remained attached to the single party, with the media under state control, in a word to authoritarianism. ‟Democracy implies a culture which takes three centuries to develop,” he explained at the time to French journalists. ‟Algeria can wait a few generations before adopting it.”
In 1994, the generals, with a merciless civil war on their hands, were looking for a civilian to preside over the fate of the country. Showing caution, Bouteflika refuses: he does not want to be appointed by the Council of Transition. “If the army want me, let them appoint me directly!” he tells his friends. Five years later, the President in office, Lamine Zeroual is forced to resign by the security services. Again, the search was on for civilian successor, someone with an international reputation. This time he accepted the position after an election in which he was the only candidate, all the others having withdrawn to protest the fraud. In the end he got rid of his mentor, Colonel Larbi Belkeir by sending him off to Morocco as ambassador.
Of President Bouteflika’s four terms of office, the first was certainly the most fruitful. He broke away from the military, put the finishing touches on civil peace, which his predecessors had already mostly achieved, launched study programs in view of reforming the state or the justice system, restored the public finances and the image of Algeria in the outside world. At the turn of the century he was a guest of Jacques Chirac in Paris and benefited from an international rehabilitation.
The squandered oil-windfall
The second term got off to a bad start. Ali Benflis, the Prime Minister and General secretary of the FLN who intended to run against him was forced to withdraw, the military chief of staff was retired and replaced by the commander of the army, General Ahmed Gaïd, known as “Salah” during the revolution who had just forced him to resign. But oil prices began their vertiginous climb and Algeria was flooded with dollars beyond its wildest dreams. Wisely enough, Bouteflika took his Finance Minister’s advice and paid off all his country’s debts to the jubilation of his people, humiliated and impoverished by the IMF’s programmes ten years earlier. The costly foreign debt was repaid down to the last dollar. But now a restriction had been lifted and starting in the years 2005-2006 the habit was taken of spending right and left. The government bought social peace by subsidising food and other staple products, fuel and energy. Above all, it launched an ambitious housing program involving the construction of hundreds of thousand of housing units which were simply handed over to tenants who paid nothing. This generous policy no doubt explains why Algeria was spared the Arab Spring of 2011.
It was at this point that the President fell ill. Rushed to Val-de-Grace Hospital in Paris he was operated for stomach cancer. It seemed that he would have to step down soon, especially as the 1996 Constitution limits the presidency to two terms. No problem! The restriction was lifted in five minutes with a show of hands vote in Parliament under the watchful eyes of the security forces. His third term was marked by an unprecedented financial affluence. Money flowed like water and the President’s friends took advantage of it more than others.
The procurement contracts acquired huge proportions, Algerians couldn’t keep up and Bouteflicka who was keen to inaugurate his projects in person, called in the Chinese. They made a clean sweep of the major ones—including the East—West Highway, no doubt the most expensive per km in the world.
His mother’s death deepened his isolation. Indeed, the old lady kept in touch with a part of the population and informed her son of the reactions to government measures. The President, scarcely had any visitors, his ministers never met with him, his contempt for the local press was such that in twenty years reign he never gave it an interview yet he would gladly talk to surprising foreign journalists such as the woman who presented the weather forecast on FR3 TV.
In April 2013, illness struck again: he went back to Val-de-Grace and spent long weeks in France. General Mohamed Mediene, aka Tewfik head of the powerful Direction du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) opposed a fourth term. The struggle was a bitter one, but thanks to the support of the army Bouteflika came out on top and won the election without even bothering to campaign against an improbable Trotskyist candidate. In fact he no longer held the reins of power but it was his brother Said, a taciturn academic who was going to have to deal with the worst oil crisis since the war just two months later. Prices collapsed and Algeria saw its revenues halved. For five months the government did next to nothing, content to merely dig into the nest egg saved up during the “glorious decade” (nearly 200 billion dollars). Now Said fell ill as well, and came to rely on a clique of shady businessmen who stripped the public treasure in a thousand and one ways: bank loans at zero interest, subsidies, gifts of public land, tax deductions, etc.
Stating in the summer of 2017, the problem of a fifth term reared its head. Could they offer voters, even in a rigged election, a candidate so seriously diminished? In vain did they search for a successor. The clans were unable to come to an agreement, except to carry on with Bouteflika. This was a terrible mistake. On 10 February 2019 public opinion learned this decision and felt humiliated at being forced to vote for a personality incapable of fulfilling his function.
In just a few days the population rose up in protest against a fifth term and encountered only a contemptuous silence.
At the beginning of March, the Army refused to crack down on the protestors. At this point, there began an episode of undignified haggling: Bouteflika, or rather those who spoke in his name, sent successive letters, in which at first he promised not to complete the five-year term, then cancelled April 18 election but meant to remain in power, and finally promised to step down in April. General Lamine Zeroual revealed on Tuesday 2 April last minute manoeuvres attempting to involve him in a transitional committee. General Gaid found himself having to demand the President’s immediate resignation and Boutflika complied two hours later. The sad end of the journey of an Algerian political veteran who did not understand that society had evolved and that the political mores of wartime were no longer applicable, almost sixty years after independence.