Algeria's Bouteflika: Peace Architect who Has Clung to Power

Abdelaziz Bouteflika is Algeria's longest-serving president and a veteran of its independence struggle, who has clung to power for two decades despite years of ill health.

The 81-year-old head of state issued a decree on Friday setting April 18 as the date for the next presidential election.

Rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 that impaired his speech and left him confined to a wheelchair, Bouteflika has not confirmed whether he will seek a new mandate.

But many observers believe that he will seek a fifth term.

Even before his stroke, a year before the last presidential poll, Bouteflika had repeatedly marked himself out as a wily political survivor.

When he came to power, with the support of an army battling Islamist guerrillas, nobody expected him to stay in office for so long.

But "Boutef", as many Algerians nickname him, was instrumental in fostering peace after a decade-long civil war in the 1990s.

"I am the whole of Algeria. I am the embodiment of the Algerian people," he said in 1999, the year he became president.

But he has had a long battle with illness and frequently flown to France for treatment.

Known for wearing a three-piece suit even in the stifling heat, he gained respect from many for his role in ending the civil war, which official figures say killed nearly 200,000 people.

But he has also faced criticism from rights groups and opponents who accuse him of being authoritarian.

After his stroke, Bouteflika consolidated power in a country where the shadowy intelligence service has long been viewed as a "state within a state."

In early 2016, he dissolved the all-powerful DRS intelligence agency after dismissing its leader General Mohamed Mediene, known as "Toufik", who had clung to the post for a quarter of a century.

- Architect of peace -

Bouteflika was born in Morocco on March 2, 1937 to a family from western Algeria.

At the age of 19 he joined the National Liberation Front (FLN) in its struggle against the French colonial rulers.

When independence came in 1962, he was appointed minister of sport and tourism at the age of just 25, under Algeria's first post-independence president, Ahmed Ben Bella.

The following year he became foreign minister, a post he held for more than a decade.

But he was sidelined after the death of president Houari Boumediene in 1978 and went into self-imposed exile.

While he was abroad, the military-backed government canceled the 1991 elections, which an Islamist party had been poised to win.

That sparked a decade of bloodletting.

Bouteflika returned from Switzerland in 1999 to stand for president, with the backing of the army, which saw him as a potential figure of reconciliation.

He proposed an amnesty for rebels who laid down their arms and twice secured public endorsement for "national reconciliation" through referendums.

The first, in September 1999, was a major gamble -- but it paid off, leading to a sharp decrease in violence that helped propel Bouteflika to a second term in 2004.

A constitutional amendment was required to allow him to stand for a third term, which he won in 2009.

When the Arab Spring erupted in January 2011, Bouteflika rode out the storm by lifting a 19-year state of emergency and using oil revenues to grant pay rises.

His supporters argue that under his stewardship, public and private investment have created millions of jobs and dramatically lowered unemployment.

But a lack of opportunities and high youth unemployment continues to drive many Algerians to seek a better life abroad.

- Uncertain future -

In April 2013, the president was rushed to hospital in France after his stroke, and spent three months recovering. 

He had already been hospitalized in Paris in 2005 because of intestinal problems, and in early 2006 spent a week undergoing post-operative medical tests at the same hospital.

In 2016, he flew abroad twice, to France and to Switzerland, for medical checks.

Bouteflika's decision to seek a fourth mandate in 2014 after 15 years in power sparked both criticism and derision from opponents, who questioned his ability to rule.

He did not even campaign, casting his vote from a wheelchair, but still officially won 81 percent of the vote.

There has been constant speculation over his health and his fourth mandate has been marred by falling oil prices, exposing the country's heavy dependence on hydrocarbons. 

Critics argue that uncertainty over Bouteflika's fitness for a fifth term -- and speculation over possible successors -- has paralyzed the government. 

Political commentator Rashid Tlemcani argues that the president "should have left office at the end of his second term, after securing national reconciliation and conquering the hearts of a large part of the population."

Source: Agence France Presse

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