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Abdelaziz Bouteflika, seventh president of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, is the politician who has served the longest term as head of state. Its itinerary merges with the recent history of the country, from the struggle for independence to its flagship project of national reconciliation.

After officially submitting his resignation on April 2, 2019, Abdelaziz Bouteflika passed away on Friday September 17 at the age of 84. A look back at the career of the Algerian leader who remained in power the longest.

Abdelaziz the “Moroccan”

If, during the last months of his life, his rare public appearances testified more to the physical weakness of the octogenarian than to the power of his speech, President Bouteflika was not always a man with a tired figure. A fine political strategist and seasoned diplomat, Bouteflika has been a key player in the country’s history, from the struggle for independence to national reconciliation.

At 28, Abdelaziz Bouteflika is Minister of Foreign Affairs. In the photo, he responds to journalists leaving the Elysee Palace where he met with the French President, General de Gaulle. © AFP

From Oujda in Morocco, where he was born on March 2, 1937 in a modest Algerian family, Abdelaziz Bouteflika managed to reach the highest positions in Algeria.

In 1956, at the age of 19, he answered the call of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and joined its armed wing, the National Liberation Army (ALN). From his time in the maquis, he will keep the nickname “Moroccan”.

There he met Houari Boumediene – future president of independent Algeria, of which he would soon be considered as the right-hand man. In 1962, on the country’s independence, he was appointed Minister of Youth, Sports and Tourism, then Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was then 26 years old.

National reconciliation

When President Boumediene died in 1979, a war of succession raged. With the support of the army, Chadli Bendjedid becomes president and Bouteflika is satisfied with the post of minister of state. However, he was gradually removed from the political scene by the army. Brought before the disciplinary council of the FLN after being sued by the Court of Auditors for his management in Foreign Affairs, he chose exile in the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland and France. After crossing the desert for six years, he returned to Algeria in 1987, where he became, two years later, a member of the FLN Central Committee.

In 1999, Bouteflika was elected for the first time to the presidency, this time with the support of the army, a term that would ultimately become the longest in Algerian history. Algeria was then bereaved by nearly a decade of civil war. Bouteflika promises to put an end, through a state of emergency, to the Islamist insurgency started in 1991 and is the architect of national reconciliation.

The Law on Civil Concord, which offers amnesty to some 6,000 fighters of the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), entered into force in early 2000. It became the “Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation” after a referendum in 2005. But the reconciliation process is not smooth: some denounce too much laxity towards the Islamists, others see it only as a political strategy by Bouteflika to stay in power. “I will not give up national reconciliation, whatever the price to pay”, he persisted in declaring in 2007.

“A sham”

In the early 2000s, the army repressed violent riots in Kabylia. Despite this, he was re-elected in the first round in 2004, with nearly 84% of the vote. Three of the other five candidates denounce fraud “at all levels”. From the start of his second term, Bouteflika ordered the arrest of the director of the daily Le Matin for the publication of “Bouteflika, the story of an imposture”. Mohamed Benchicou paints the portrait of a president “failing and without scale, intriguing, cut off from his time, unfit to listen, overwhelmed by his charges”.

In October 2008, the Parliament adopted with an overwhelming majority a constitutional reform which removed the limitation to two of the number of presidential mandates. This vote paves the way for a third term for Bouteflika, reelected with more than 90% of the votes on April 10, 2009.

Unfinished files

At the international level, the Algeria of Bouteflika has remained marked by its postcolonial relations with France. The strong man of Algiers will not have ceased, during his career, to demand an apology from Paris. In the absence of symbolic repentance, he nevertheless obtained from François Hollande, on an official visit to the country in 2012, the recognition of the suffering inflicted on the Algerian people.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika has never ceased, during his career, to demand an apology from Paris on the thorny issue of France’s colonial past. © AFP

The question of Western Sahara, a real poison in relations between Algeria and Morocco, will also not have been resolved.

Economically, Algeria has benefited since the early 2000s from the rise in the price of oil. It is pursuing an ambitious major works policy, notably with the construction of public infrastructure. Despite everything, many problems weigh on the economy, such as insufficient housing, corruption or unemployment.

Arab Spring survivor

During Bouteflika’s tenure, inequalities and poverty reached record levels. A situation at the origin of the wind of revolt which blows in the country, in 2011, in the wake of the Arab springs. Struggling with collective dissatisfaction, Bouteflika then decided to let go of the ballast by carrying out a series of reforms. In particular, it lifts the state of emergency, in force for 19 years, which extended the powers of the military to the detriment of political and individual freedoms.

In 2012, the Algerian president attends the festivities for the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of Algeria, visibly tired © Mehdi Chebil

Victim of a stroke in 2013, the Algerian president nevertheless decides to seek a new mandate. He was triumphantly re-elected on April 17, 2014 at the age of 77 with 81.53% of the votes.

His fourth term in office was marked in the fall of 2015 by a sweeping blow within the Algerian power with the dismissal of General Mohamed Médiène, alias Toufik, head of the Intelligence and Security Department (DRS), or of the Attorney General of the Court of Algiers Belkacem Zeghmati.

A few weeks later and for the first time, relatives of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika publicly question the president’s ability to lead the country. In a letter made public in November 2015, 19 personalities thus asked to meet the Head of State.

Perpetual speculation about his state of health

Bouteflika’s appearances have indeed become increasingly rare in recent months. In April 2016, during the visit of the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, the Algerian president appears very weakened in front of the photographers, presenting a livid face, the haggard eyes and the open mouth.

In April 2016, Abdelaziz Bouteflika appeared very weakened during the visit of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. © AFP

Speculations on his state of health, regularly denied by the Algerian government, have never ceased to feed the columns of the newspapers. After several stays in Val-de-Grâce, in Paris, between 2005 and 2014, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was hospitalized last December in a clinic in Grenoble. His trip to Geneva in April 2016 for a medical check-up was the last.

Having become almost invisible in the last years of his presidency, Abdelaziz Bouteflika had given no sign of life since the popular protest movement of the “Hirak” and the army forced him to resign.

That day he had last appeared on television to announce that he was throwing in the towel. The Hirak however continued despite the ouster of Bouteflika and his clan, then the election in 2019 of his successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune.