The former president of Algeria Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1999-2019) died this Friday at the age of 84, when he had already had several years without showing signs of life. Public television broadcast at dawn on Saturday a statement from the presidency in which the death was announced without specifying his cause. Since he suffered a stroke in April 2013 at the age of 76, he has never made a public speech. In Algeria many people called him The Mummy. He almost always appeared in wheelchairs and from time to time it leaked out that Algeria was looking for a successor or that Buteflika’s death was imminent.
The last time Buteflika spoke in public was on May 8, 2012. Since he suffered the stroke, he did not attend international summits and visits by heads of state were canceled at the last minute. Their messages were spread in writing. On the rare occasions when he appeared in a recorded video, his voice was not heard. Everything related to the president’s health has since become a mystery.
Everyone knew that since 2013 who acted on his behalf was Said Buteflika, the youngest of his nine siblings. And that, in reality, the Buteflikas and their allies were subordinate to the power of the generals of the General Staff. Everyone knew the charade. But the clan and the generals wanted to keep it. And in 2019 they presented Buteflika to run for a fifth term in the presidential elections. That filled the patience of the Algerians.
Millions of people took to the streets in an unprecedented way on February 22 of that year. Was born the hirak Algerian, a movement that although weakened, divided and brutally repressed, continues to fight today for a true democracy in Algeria. Hirak activists protested Friday after Friday until the military was forced to force Buteflika’s resignation on April 2, 2019. It was a humiliating exit for a very proud man.
Two days after his resignation, Buteflika – or whoever was acting on his behalf – apologized to the Algerians through a letter written in Arabic. He apologized for “all non-compliance” committed against his people, although he claimed to have been “sincere.” And he added: “As of today I am a simple citizen, but that does not prevent me from being proud that Algeria has started the 21st century in a better situation and that I congratulate myself on the remarkable progress made in all domains in favor of the Algerian people ”.
The military regime then launched a hunt against the Buteflika clan. His brother Said was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “undermining the authority of the Army” and “conspiring against the authority of the State.” The same happened with the Kuninef brothers, the businessmen who financed the Buteflika campaigns, and with former heads of military intelligence. They were all tried and are still in jail. However, the regime kept Abdelaziz Buteflika safe from justice. He has spent the last two years at his residence in Zeralda, west of Algiers. He was in the care of Sister Zhor, who has served as mayor for 20 years, and surrounded by a team of doctors.
The history of Buteflika has run in parallel with that of Algeria. He was born in 1937 in the Moroccan city of Oujda, five kilometers from the border with Algeria, although his official biography did not mention the place of birth. He was the second child of a total of five brothers, one sister, and three stepsisters. When the war of independence began, he was 17 years old. And 25 when the country achieved independence. In 1956, at the age of 19, he crossed the border from Morocco to join the National People’s Army against France. At the end of the conflict, in 1962, he was appointed Minister of Youth, Sports and Tourism. At the age of 26, he became the youngest foreign minister in the world and remained in office for 15 years. Since then, he hardly got out of the official car.
She liked to cultivate a dandy image and never had children that she officially recognized. In 1981 the State Court of Accounts charged him with embezzlement. So, quick reflexes in 1983, he went into exile in the United Arab Emirates, France and Switzerland, to return to the country in 1990, at the age of 53.
The Algerian military, supported by the West, carried out a military coup, after the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the first round of legislative elections in 1992. As a result of the coup a civil war ensued. With the war, the mass murder of civilians by Islamist groups and also by the Army. And after nearly 200,000 fatalities, the military hierarchy found it necessary to improve the image of the State before the world and placed its trust in a civilian who was then 62 years old, a reputation for a skillful negotiator and international recognition.
Buteflika ran for the 1999 elections as an independent, but was totally dependent on the military. In those presidential elections, he was the only candidate who had a Boeing 737 to travel a country almost five times larger than Spain. He wasn’t a brilliant speaker, but he got his message through. Before an audience sometimes made up of hundreds of illiterate peasants, Buteflika spoke of reconciliation and national unity, quoting Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu.
He won the 1999 and 2004 presidential elections. The law limited the power of the president to two terms. So he changed the law, repealed article 74 of the Constitution that prevented him from staying in power. Little by little he was getting rid of both his mentors and his main enemies, of all those who managed in the shadows the main threads of the country. After four consecutive terms, Buteflika became the president who spent the longest time at the head of the country and the one who held the most power since Algeria achieved independence. But there was always some general above him.
It is difficult to find someone in Algeria today who speaks well of Buteflika. The clan members are still in jail and the hirak saw him as a military wimp. However, its defenders claim that Butef, as they called it, guaranteed 20 years of peace and stability.
After the civil war, Buteflika managed to pardon many jihadists, incorporate some Islamists into the political and economic spheres and thus dilute his strength. In 2001, when the Arab Spring swept away almost all the autocrats in North Africa, Buteflika appeased the unemployed youth with easily distributed credits and without any commitment to pay.
For its defenders, Buteflika was not only the man who established peace, but the one who promoted the construction of large infrastructures in the country, the one who put Algeria on the map of international relations, the one who knew how to maintain good relations with France, Russia and the United States, and the one that preserved a social policy that always sought to favor those most in need. And all this, without the need to borrow abroad, something that the regime has always boasted about. For his detractors, Buteflika was an autocrat without the courage to tackle the liberal reforms demanded by the country’s economy, too dependent on fuel, who did not know how to take advantage of the boom years with rising oil prices, who did not institute transparency measures to combat endemic corruption. An autocrat who did not know how to retire in time.