First Published: 2004-04-07

Profiles of Algeria's presidential candidates


Middle East Online

By Boubker Belkadi & Abdellah Cheballah - ALGIERS

Bouteflika pins re-election hopes on silver tongue, peace credentials

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, bidding for re-election Thursday, hopes his oratorical skills - and his efforts to end Algeria's brutal civil war - have helped sway those who have been otherwise disappointed by his stewardship since 1999.

The president is widely faulted for his handling of a three-year-old crisis in the northeastern Kabylie region, the homeland of the Berber minority, as well as for an economic situation that fails to match the promise of a country so rich in natural and human resources.

His challengers, including former right-hand man Ali Benflis, also accuse Bouteflika of failing to address chronic social problems including unemployment, poverty and chronic housing and water shortages.

But most people, especially the man in the street, praise him for his efforts to end Algeria's civil war, which he launched directly after taking power with a "civil reconciliation" plan that was overwhelmingly endorsed in a September 1999 referendum.

Convinced that appeasement was the only viable course, Bouteflika defied harsh criticism to amnesty thousands of rebels who - at least officially - had not committed "blood" crimes or rape in a war that has claimed some 150,000 lives since 1992.

The gamble paid off, leading to a sharp decrease in violence. The fact that people, especially women, feel immeasurably safer venturing outside their homes is the change that most voters cite first when they say Bouteflika deserves a second term.

But the litany of criticism resumes with recollections of his bungled handling of natural disasters, notably last year's major earthquake east of Algiers that claimed 2,300 lives, when corruption was blamed for hundreds of building collapses and relief was widely considered too little, too late.

Bouteflika, a gifted speaker who comes up with classical rhetoric and earthy proverbs with equal ease in both French and Arabic, has broad appeal on both sides of Algeria's religious-secular divide.

Abandoning the aloofness and arrogance that he showed five years ago when his election was all but assured - he even called Berbers "dwarfs" in 1999 - Bouteflika has turned on the charm, often showing an affectionate side that rankles his critics.

He mocks his own small stature and compensates for it by wearing a suit and tie on any occasion, even in searing heat.

Born March 2, 1937, in Oujda, Morocco, of Algerian parents, Bouteflika joined the National Liberation Army in 1956 to help fight the war for independence begun two years earlier.

That war finally ended in victory in 1962 after claiming hundreds of thousands of lives, and Bouteflika became a member of the newly independent Algeria's constituent assembly for Tlemcen, his parents' home region.

Soon afterward, when he was only 26, he became foreign minister, a post he held for 13 years, and in which even his adversaries say he excelled.

Sidelined from government after the death of President Houari Boumediene in December 1978, he eventually left political life in 1981. Solicited in 1994 to take over the presidency, he declined, and the job was given to Liamine Zeroual.

After nearly two decades in the wilderness, Bouteflika returned from self-imposed exile in Switzerland to run for president in 1999 with the backing of the army, the traditional arbiter in Algerian politics.

He initially faced six rivals, but wound up standing alone when they all pulled out, crying foul.

Five years on, his re-election is far less certain, since the military has declared neutrality, conditions have been greatly liberalized, and he is up against a fellow establishment scion - Benflis, the man who directed his 1999 election campaign.

Ali Benflis: friend turned top challenger to Bouteflika

Ali Benflis, who directed the successful election campaign of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999, on Thursday will seek to unseat his former ally and mentor.

Benflis, a former human rights lawyer who became Bouteflika's right-hand man, first as his cabinet chief, then head of government, was abruptly sacked last May after a bruising power struggle.

He now accuses the president of dictatorial leanings, presiding over injustice and corruption, and of being a man of the past who is incapable of facing the demands of modernity.

The merciless duel between the two men has split the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), which has largely remained behind Benflis, the party's secretary general since September 2001.

Sporting a trim mustache, his dark hair speckled with gray, the discreet 59-year-old has an aura of reserve and had to be coached to add warmth and passion to his campaign speeches, which were initially flat next to those of his silver-tongued adversary.

The product of a well-to-do family in the Aures region of Algeria's northeast, Benflis was a judge in the late 1960s before becoming attorney general in 1971, a job he held until 1974, when he began working as a lawyer.

He returned to government as justice minister under the reform-minded head of government Kasdi Merbah following riots in October 1988 that brought an end to single-party rule by the NLF.

Benflis was retained in the job by Merbah's successors Mouloud Hamrouche and Sid Ahmed Ghozali, but resigned in protest over the treatment of Islamists who were arrested during the uprising of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) following an abortive election of 1991-92.

The military stepped in to cancel the second round of the legislative polls in the face of certain victory by the FIS - which had pledged to set up an Islamic state - and the party has been banned ever since.

In 1986, Benflis had helped to found the Algerian Human Rights League, and he now decided to return to law as a defender of Islamic militants, which he did until he won election to parliament as an FLN lawmaker in 1997.

Benflis' relentless rise to the top of the FLN, which he guided to electoral victories in legislative and local elections in 2002, finally found him at odds with Bouteflika, who began to see in him as a dangerous rival.

He gained prominence in the FLN first on its central committee, then its politburo, but, while considered a reformer, Benflis shied away from public debate with party conservatives during the mid-1990s.

In late 2001, while Benflis was Bouteflika's head of government, he seized the reins of the FLN, becoming its secretary general and assuring the party's victory in legislative elections in May 2002, when the FLN won a majority in parliament. The following fall the party swept local elections.

Said Sadi: confirmed secularist and champion of Algeria's Berbers

Algerian presidential candidate Said Sadi advocates a strictly secular state, clear separation of powers, minority rights for Algeria's ethnic Berbers and the emancipation of women.

These principles make him stand out in a Muslim country ravaged by an Islamic extremist insurgency and still emerging from the grips of single-party rule more than a decade after pluralist politics was introduced.

The head of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), now 57, was instrumental in aborting legislative elections in 1992 to prevent the certain victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which had vowed to set up an Islamic state, which Sadi sees as a form of fascism.

A psychiatrist by training, Sadi advocates a modern, Westernized Algeria, in which women will be accorded full rights but one that will retain its traditions and customs - which explains his devotion to the Berber cause.

A teacherly man with glasses and moustache, Sadi was one of the main instigators of Berber militancy in the 1960s and '70s, and helped found the League in Defense of Human Rights in 1985, which landed him in prison for 16 months.

He assumed the leadership of the RCD in 1989, at a time when the FIS was rapidly gaining ground and nearing the gates of power.

The RCD, as the fourth party to win official recognition in Algeria, after multiple parties were allowed in the wake of bloody riots in 1988, swept municipal elections in Kabylie, the Berber homeland, in June 1990 as the FIS was winning elsewhere in the country.

As Algeria sank into violence from 1992, Sadi called for the creation of "self-defense" groups to combat the extremists alongside the security forces.

He also set up the short-lived Movement for the Republic, which never managed to consolidate the various components of Algeria's "democrats".

In a bid to dispel critics' depictions of him as a secular, even anti-religious French-speaking intellectual out of touch with Algerian realities, Sadi has run a down-to-earth campaign, mixing Arabic, Berber and French in his speeches, even sprinkling them with religious references.

He has an enthusiastic following in Kabylie.

Abdallah Djaballah: Algeria's radical Islamist for president

Abdallah Djaballah, one of six candidates in Algeria's presidential election Thursday, is a radical Islamist who wants to see the strict application of Sharia, the traditional Muslim legal code, in the north African country.

Djaballah, 48, is the candidate of the National Reform Movement (MRN), a party he created in 1999 after breaking away from the Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement which backed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the time.

True to his convictions to Muslim dogma, Djaballah is fiercely opposed to any tampering with the Islamic family code, decried by feminists and most political parties for making women totally subservient to men.

Djaballah rails against the "Westernization" of Algerian society evident in schools, increasing freedoms for women, permissive television programs and growing alcohol consumption.

He is frequently seen in traditional Muslim garb to go with his beard and white cap, which he dons even when wearing a Western suit.

Djaballah has a piercing gaze and speaks forcefully, sprinkling his speeches with quotations from the Koran and religious allusions.

Originally from Skida in northeastern Algeria, Djaballah earned a law degree from Constantine University.

As a student in 1974, while the country was still under one-party rule by the National Liberation Front (FLN), he secretly founded a group with the goal of establishing an Islamic state in Algeria.

This activism cost him his civil rights in 1979, and he was later incarcerated, once in 1982 and again in 1985.

Most leading members of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which launched a rebel insurgency in 1992 after being prevented from winning legislative elections, cut their teeth in this group.

In 1988, Djaballah founded a cultural association, Ennahda, which he would later transform into a political party.

Soon afterward rioting in Algiers signalled the beginning of the end of one-party rule by the FLN, which had been in power since independence in 1962.

A proponent of the FIS's rehabilitation, Djaballah took part in early 1995 in efforts by several political parties to negotiate with Islamic extremists to end the attacks and killings as the civil war raged unabated.

Djaballah's MRN won 43 seats out of 389 in a parliamentary vote in 2002, becoming the third largest force in the National Assembly after the FLN and the National Democratic Rally, which now backs Bouteflika.

Lousia Hanoune: the first woman to run for president in Algeria

Blunt-talking, no nonsense Trotskyite candidate Louisa Hanoune is the first woman to stand for president in Algeria, or anywhere else in the Arab world.

Hanoune, the spokeswoman for the Worker's Party (PT), brings to Thursday's six-way race in the north African country a strong character forged in the struggle for the recognition of women's rights.

She has campaigned for a democracy free of military underpinnings in a country where generals have long pulled the political strings - though they have pledged neutrality in this election - and against an Islamic state in a nation which has been wracked since 1992 by an Islamic extremist insurgency.

Hanoune, 50, spent six months in jail in 1983 on conviction of state security offences for her underground fight against the National Liberation Front (FLN), then the sole ruling party.

Her prominence on the far left and in the feminist movement gradually took her to the top of the PT in 1990.

The election has given Hanoune, with her direct gaze and hair pulled back in a severe bun, a further platform for presenting the PT as the "party of the masses" and denouncing the evil effects of globalisation, one of her warhorses.

The talented orator and law graduate from Annaba, her native Mediterranean coastal city east of Algiers, has called for a peaceful end to the nation's bloody crisis that has claimed some 150,000 lives.

She argues for a negotiated solution which would take on board the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a party outlawed in 1992 after the army cancelled the second round of elections it was clear the Islamists would win.

In January 1995, Hanoune was a signatory to a "national contract" signed by opposition parties meeting in Rome, in which they called for the FIS to be put back in the political arenas.

Such positions won her sympathy among supporters of radical Islam, and her detractors have attributed her own career successes to a "helping hand" from such militants.

At a post-Rome rally in Algiers in June 1995, she was cheered by thousands of men, mainly Islamic militants.

She still defends FIS leaders and has said that the party's radical number two, Ali Belhadj, who was freed in July 2003 after serving a 12-year jail term for state security offences, should be allowed to run for president.

"Ali Belhadj is an Algerian citizen. Now that he's served his sentence, it's unacceptable - and from a legal point of view too - for him to be deprived of his rights," she says.

Her party caused a stir in 1997 by winning four parliamentary seats. In 2002, it got stronger, taking a score of seats in the national assembly after a feisty campaign led by the charismatic Hanoune.

She had failed to muster the necessary 75,000 signatures to run for president in April 1999. That vote was won by current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after all the opposition candidates pulled out at the last minute, saying the poll was rigged in advance.


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