Ghost President

Algeria's ailing, invisible strongman is a lock to win a fourth term as president. But things are not so quiet behind the scenes.

Getty Images
Getty Images

TUNIS — Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika looks healthy enough in campaign posters. At a rally for Algerian expatriates in Tunis, the septuagenarian gazes warmly at the crowd from glossy poster stock, his trademark moustache and wispy thatch of hair not entirely overtaken by gray. In the background, his campaign jingle blares over loudspeakers, an ode to the highs and lows of the Algerian football team.

"He’s the candidate who inspires hope, and he has achieved many things for our country, especially bringing peace," says Amar Saadani, the less-than-charismatic secretary-general of Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN) and one of the president’s most vocal supporters.

But the youthful campaign photos bear little resemblance to the man spotted only sporadically in public over the last year. A ghost candidate, Bouteflika didn’t appear at a single rally throughout the campaign, not even the grand finale in Algiers on April 13. No surprises there. Since he suffered stroke last April, the aging president has struggled to stand or speak. There has been much speculation about who has been running the show since then, especially during the three months Bouteflika spent recovering in a Parisian hospital. There is also talk of updating the ever-malleable constitution later this year to create an official vice president, just in case. Unofficially, his brother, Said Bouteflika, is believed to be pulling the strings, but nothing can be said for sure.

Bouteflika’s reelection campaign is a well-oiled machine — so efficient that even in his invisibility, the aging strongman is the only candidate with a real shot in the April 17 election. But his regime has grown increasingly brittle. The president’s frail health has deepened divisions within the ruling elite, and united the typically fractious opposition, which has declared its intention to boycott the vote.

Still, Bouteflika’s supporters are confident he will win a fourth term in office: "We know how to run elections," Saadani says dismissively, when asked if the anger Bouteflika’s candidacy has provoked risks undermining the credibility of the elections. Six candidates are technically running for the presidency, but the vote is set to be the usual one-horse race, with all the standard allegations of systematic fraud. With the president too ill to campaign himself, his political allies have risen to the occasion. Along with Saadani, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal resigned last month to run the campaign.

Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, in the depths of the Algerian civil war, when he won election with the backing of the military. In that contest, all six of his opponents withdrew in protest on the eve of the election, and he received nearly 74 percent of the vote. Since then, his margin of victory has only gotten wider. In the 2009 elections — already controversial because the constitution had been altered to allow Bouteflika to run for a third term — he was reelected with an astonishing and almost certainly fraudulent 90 percent of vote. Officially, the turnout was 74 percent, but the U.S. embassy’s estimate was "25-30 percent at most," a diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks reveals. This time around, Saadani predicts that a more modest 60 percent of Algerians will vote to return the president to office.  

In the lead-up to the election, there has been little freedom for public debate. A wave of peaceful anti-Bouteflika protests was viciously suppressed by security forces. At many demonstrations, plain clothes police officers and members of the media outnumbered protesters. Last month, authorities shuttered the privately owned Atlas television station after its coverage became "too critical." Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both condemned government abuses in recent months.

Popular anger has boiled over into violence on more than one occasion, and several pro-Bouteflika rallies have been cancelled as a result. One, scheduled to take place on April 5 in the eastern region of Kabylie, where the president is especially unpopular, was called off after the venue was burned to the ground.

The controversy surrounding his bid for a fourth term has divided the ruling oligarchy to an extent not seen in years. In the three previous presidential elections, the generals of the military and the all-powerful intelligence service, known as the DRS, were unified in throwing their support for Bouteflika.

Since his 2009 reelection, however, the balance of power between the presidency, the DRS, and the military has been in serious turmoil. Bouteflika has sought to establish a more independent presidency, attempting to rein in the intelligence chief, Gen. Mohamed Mediène, known popularly as Gen. Toufik, who has been considered an untouchable force since his appointment in 1992 (Toufik reportedly describes himself as the "God of Algeria").

In response to Bouteflika’s attempts to reduce the DRS’s political power, media loyal to the intelligence chief have been attacking the president and his loyalists.

The DRS has spent years gathering files on everyone who is anyone. In January 2010, it began leaking information about the corrupt dealings of top employees at Sonatrach, the state oil company which accounts for fully 98 percent of Algerian exports. Among those implicated by the leaks was Bouteflika’s protégé, ex-energy minister Chakib Khelil, and his entourage. Khelil was, among other things, a key interlocutor with the United States, where he fled in 2013 to avoid arrest.

One of the powerful DRS figures — and Toufik allies — whom Bouteflika had tried, unsuccessfully, to remove in 2009 was Ali Tounsi, the national police chief. Tounsi refused to step down, telling the media that "A mujahid never retires." In February 2010, he was assassinated under mysterious circumstances.

The Sonatrach leaks hit even closer to the president’s inner circle when a series of newspaper articles alleged that his brother, Said Bouteflika, was heavily involved in corruption dealings at the oil giant and that Khelil had taken the fall for him. On April 24, 2013, for example, the leading daily El Watan published an article titled "Corruption case: Said Bouteflika, is he implicated?" It was the first in a series of articles implicating the president’s brother in the massive corruption scandal. Bouteflika suffered his stroke three days after it appeared in print.

The back-and-forth has escalated since then. Saadani, as the public face of the Bouteflika clan, attacked Gen. Toufik by name in a stunning — and unprecedented — Q&A published by the website Tout sur l’Algérie on Feb. 3. Among other things, he accused the spy chief of playing a role in the 1992 assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf. The tone of these unprecedentedly public clan wars became distinctly low-brow the following day, when another leading pro-DRS paper, Le Jeune Independent, ran a front page story denouncing Saadani under the homophobic headline: "Quand un homo provoque un homme," or "When a homo [sic] attacks a man."

When it comes to his battles against Toufik’s supporters, the FLN secretary-general is tight-lipped: "That’s an internal matter. I don’t have a response," he tells me.

As the election draws closer, Bouteflika’s backers appear to have bested the DRS for now. They have promised to deliver additional reforms to the national intelligence service — Toufik has proven impossible to fire, but they can continue to clip the wings of his agency — suggesting that the balance of Algerian political life has indeed been permanently transformed. Of course, that doesn’t mean Toufik won’t put up a fight, and the power struggles between the self-proclaimed Gods will very likely lead to yet more violence and turmoil for mortal Algerians. 

According to Michael Willis, a professor of North African politics at the University of Oxford, the ruling elite doesn’t want to take any chances of putting in place a president who might be too independent. Despite simmering clan feuds, Bouteflika is still viewed as the most "manageable" way to preserve the status quo. "It suggests they’re running out of ideas," he says. "On some level, if you have somebody who’s very, very ill and not very active, then at least well they know that that person won’t go off on their own and create problems."

On the sidelines of the Tunis rally, an FLN official argues that Bouteflika is the only guarantor of stability. When I point out that Bouteflika is not exactly immortal, he insists that the wheelchair-bound president’s fourth term will be the one that prepares the terrain for a democratic transition.

Faced with messy transitions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, not to mention a ticking time bomb in Syria, it appears the international community is placing its bets with Bouteflika, who has been a key U.S. ally since 2001.

"There may be some thinking that given what’s happened in the Maghreb, that stability is more important than an open, democratic regime," Willis says, referring to the messy revolutions in Tunisia and Libya. "I personally think that would be a mistake."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s April 2 visit to Algiers has been interpreted by many Algerians as an implicit blessing for Bouteflika — and by extension the military establishment — and the supposed "stability" he represents. Ultimately, however, the West has little control over Algeria’s internal power struggles, as the unceremonious departure of Khelil, a key U.S. ally within the regime, demonstrates.

And so the security card has trumped reform yet again, even though the supposed guarantor of stability could very well die in office. Indeed, the metaphor of death has become a recurring theme in the election, with critics of the aging strongman imploring him, in the words of commentator Kamel Daoud not "to take the country to the tomb with you." Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem may have said it best without using words at all: In a series of recent cartoons for the newspaper Liberté, he has variously portrayed the president as a mummy, the Bouteflika campaign team as medics, and the presidential chair as a gravestone.

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