Algeria’s army urged to intervene as concerns about president’s health, country’s future grow

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika speaking with Army Chief of Staff in 2012

Critics of Algerian Presi­dent Abdelaziz Bouteflika have urged the country’s military leaders to remove him from office as con­cerns over the 80-year-old leader’s health grow.
Those calling for Bouteflika to be dismissed from office now include prominent scholars as well as a former minister and speechwriter. They have raised concerns that the president is no longer fit to hold of­fice and that the military should intervene.
But the army’s leadership, which has a long history of interfering in the country’s electoral process, has opted against taking swift action, saying they are “committed to their constitutional republican duties.”
For most of his tenure, Bouteflika proved to be a voluble and energetic leader who steered the country on a peaceful path away from Islamic extremism.
After taking office in 1999, he crisscrossed the world, meeting leaders and heading important ini­tiatives to “put Algeria back on the world stage.” But in 2013, a stroke impaired his speech and left him confined to a wheelchair. Despite his deteriorating condition, he won a fourth term for president in 2014.
On September 6, Bouteflika was featured on state television casting a disapproving glare for a calculated period of 102 seconds, an apparent reply to his opponents that cited article 102 of the constitution to im­peach him.
Algeria’s post-independence path to a multiparty democracy has been plagued with setbacks, including a brutal decade-long conflict in the 1990s that killed an estimated 200,000 and a series of military coups.
This history has made many wary of imposing political change on the North African coun­try. Opponents of Bouteflika are also concerned that street protests could break out if the ailing presi­dent were to be removed.
They have instead turned to in­side forces, such as the army, to help move the country out of its po­litical deadlock.
“The health situation of Boutef­lika is going from bad to worse,” wrote a group of intellectuals and scholars in a petition printed by Al­geria’s main daily El Watan newspa­per September 7. “It is obvious the president no longer carries out his constitutional duties in an effective, sustained and transparent manner.”
They called for “snap presidential elections” to be held in the coming months to replace Bouteflika.
“The president’s entourage in­sists that the president enjoys his abilities to lead the country beyond 2019 except that we no longer hear this president and we almost never see him,” the petition added.
Sociologist Mohamed Hennad, one of the signatories, said: “I hoped for a burst of dignity and why not generosity that the president and his close entourage would agree on a manner to announce… his res­ignation obviously on account of his health, not only for the good of the country but also for the well-being of the patient.”
The petition was also followed by a grim assessment of Bouteflika’s mental health by ex-minister and speechwriter Noureddine Bouk­rouh.
“This man (Bouteflika) has lost his mind,” Boukrouh said. “He is spending what is left of his physi­cal and cerebral strength in cast­ing systematic mistrust on his left, right, above and down and all over around him on whether someone has the intention of replacing him.”
“He has confidence only in his brother Said and a few people at the top of institutions that are what count in his view. It does not matter to him our fate, our future and our dignity among other nations. This is unacceptable, immoral and suicid­al,” Boukrouh added in a statement in which he joined other politicians in calling for the military to unseat the president.
Boukrouh also mentioned the case of Abdelmajid Tebboune, the former prime minister who was fired from his post less than three months after his appointment, to highlight Bouteflika’s incompe­tence. “A mentally capable presi­dent would not do that,” Boukrouh said.“For me, it was a turning point.”
“What can we do in the face of a situation that has persisted since April 2013 when those in power are preparing for a new mandate?” he asked.
The military spurned politicians’ calls to step in and end the political stalemate, saying that “the armed forces are committed to their con­stitutional republican duties.”
This led National Liberation Front (FLN) chief Djamel Ould Abbes to describe the political climate as “poisonous and comparable to the situation in 1998,” the year preced­ing the ouster of President Liamine Zeroual by army leaders.
“The ANP (People’s National Army) had well and truly saved Al­geria by playing the card of the rev­olutionary charisma of Bouteflika who is well-known and emotion­ally rooted in the popular imagina­tion,” said political writer Arab Ken­nouche.
“The resurgence of a strong cur­rent of popular opinion in favour of the departure of Bouteflika worries his backers at the presidential Pal­ace in el Mouradia,” said political analyst Faisal Metaoui.
However, analysts doubt that the army would turn against the presi­dent, saying that one of the success­es of Bouteflika’s near- 20-year rule has been transforming the institu­tion into “the army of the president for the first time in the country’s history.”
“The current head of state suc­ceeded in diminishing the influence of the army generals in policymak­ing but his deteriorating health has brought the army’s (role) in policy­making back to the forefront,” said political analyst Ali Boukhlef.
Lamine Ghanmi
is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.