An indication of just how long Abdul Aziz Bouteflika — who is facing protests against his plan to run for a fifth term as president — has been in Algerian public life is the fact that he served as foreign minister in the government of former president Ahmad Ben Bella, who ruled between 1962 and 1965. He was only 26 when he became his country’s top diplomat. Indeed, there exist several black and white photos of Bouteflika with long-gone foreign dignitaries.
A consummate politician, he was also instrumental in the coup against Ben Bella carried out by Houari Boumediene, who had served as president until his death in 1978. Throughout this time, Bouteflika was by Boumediene’s side, serving as foreign minister.
Algerian foreign policy under Bouteflika emerged as one of the forces behind the Non-Aligned Movement, through which Algeria, along with countries such as India, Yugoslavia and Egypt, gave a global voice to Africa, Asia and Latin America. He was the architect of the Algerian policy of total support for post-colonial states and anti-colonist movements. Icons of global revolution — from Che Guevara to Nelson Mandela to Yasser Arafat — found that they could always rely on Algeria for training, funding and support. Mandela received his first military training in Algeria. It was said that Algeria’s revolutionary war against France inspired the African National Congress’s struggle against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Indeed, post-colonial Algeria was an idealist state, and Bouteflika had a lot to do with steering the country in that direction.
Algeria remained one of the foremost supporters of the Palestinian cause throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. As president of the United Nations General Assembly, Bouteflika invited Arafat to address the body in 1974, a historic step that boosted international recognition of the Palestinian cause.
When pro-Palestinian militant Illich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as “Carlos the Jackal”, kidnapped oil ministers from an Opec meeting in Vienna in 1975, he demanded to be flown with his hostages to Algiers. Bouteflika was shown on camera embracing Carlos at the airport before they sat down to negotiate the hostages’ release.
Before his long-run as foreign minister, Bouteflika cut his teeth in the war of liberation against French rule in Algeria, one of the most brutal colonial enterprises of the modern era, which lead to millions of Algerian deaths. Having joined the National Liberation Front (FLN) — the party of liberation which turned Algeria essentially into a one-party state — in 1956 at the age of 19, Bouteflika went on to assume command positions in the nationalist insurgency. He was known then — as often now — by his revolutionary name ‘Abdul Qader Al Mali’.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Bouteflika was out of favour in the top political and military circles in Algiers, and went into exile. His return came towards the end of the 1990s, when Algeria had undergone a decade of untold brutality in a war between the army and the country’s pervasive security services on one side and the Islamists on the other. The Algerian civil war — that led to the deaths of 200,000 — was sparked when the army cancelled general elections in 1990 that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win.
Bouteflika first emerged as president in 1999, and is credited with ushering in policies — such as amnesty and rehabilitation ¬— that ended the war against the Islamists through a truce. Bouteflika’s election in 1999 was backed by the military. However, it fiercely opposed his amnesty to Islamists. But the violence declined dramatically, and Bouteflika won re-election in 2004 and again in 2009, although his opponents contested the poll results.
Moreover, he succeeded in doing the unthinkable — wresting considerable authority from “le pouvoir” (the power) — a small elite of military and security men and their political and business allies that actually rule Algeria.
Through a series of ferocious turf battles with his security forces behind the scenes, Bouteflika had, by the start of his third term, become Algeria’s most powerful president in 30 years. He consolidated that power last year by dismissing about a dozen top military officers.
The old revolutionary — dressed always in pristine three-piece, hand-cut suits, no matter the weather — now finds himself fighting all over again, this time for an unbelievable fifth term as president at the ripe age of 82 in very poor health, having suffered a stroke in 2013. His last known speech was in 2014, and he was last seen in public in a wheelchair in Algiers in April 2018. He is now reported to be in a hospital in Geneva, his exact health situation a closely guarded secret. It is rumoured to be very bad indeed.
But this has not stopped him from declaring that he will be standing in next month’s election, aiming to continue in a job that he first took up in 1999. Most of the tens of thousands of protesters on the streets of Algeria in the past few weeks are young; they have not known any other president in their lives.
The demands of the people on the streets are clear. But Bouteflika, with more than half a century of political experience under his belt, may have other plans. Only time will tell.