Mixed reactions as Algeria's ex-president Bouteflika dies

Mixed reactions as Algeria's ex-president Bouteflika dies aged 84
4 min read
18 September, 2021
The death of Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's has left behind mixed reactions.
Bouteflika died aged 84 [Getty]

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ruled Algeria for two decades before resigning in 2019 under pressure from huge street protests, has died aged 84, leaving behind mixed reactions.

The former strongman quit office in April 2019, having been abandoned by the military following weeks of demonstrations over his bid to run for a fifth presidential term.

He had since stayed out of the public eye at a residence in western Algiers.

The announcement of his death late Friday triggered muted reactions in the North African country, reflecting his absence from the public eye.

A statement from his successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune noted Bouteflika's past as a fighter in the war for independence from France and said flags would be lowered to half mast for three days to honour him.

But on the streets of the capital Algiers, many residents told AFP the once-formidable president would not be missed.

"Bless his soul. But he doesn't deserve any tribute because he did nothing for the country," said greengrocer Rabah.

There was no immediate word from authorities on arrangements for Bouteflika's funeral.

Algerian media reported it would take place on Sunday at the El-Alia cemetery, east of the capital, where his predecessors and other independence fighters are buried.

But preparations for a state funeral also appeared to be under way around the Palais du Peuple, an official building in central Algiers.

'Absolute president'

Bouteflika became president of Algeria in 1999 as the former French colony emerged from a decade of civil war between Islamists and the army that killed nearly 200,000 people.

He went on to be elected to three more consecutive five-year terms, the latest in 2014.

Dubbed "Boutef" by Algerians, he won respect as a foreign minister in the 1970s and then for helping foster peace after the civil war, notably with an amnesty law that prompted thousands of Islamist fighters to hand in their weapons.

Journalist Farid Alilat, who has written a biography of Bouteflika, says that at the height of his rule in the early 2000s, the president had "all the levers of power".

Crucially, he was backed by the army and the intelligence services.

"He became an absolute president," Alilat told AFP.

Algeria was largely spared the wave of uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011, with many crediting still-painful memories of the civil war -- as well as a boost in state handouts -- for keeping a lid on tensions.

But Bouteflika's rule was marked by corruption, leaving many Algerians wondering how a country with vast oil wealth could end up with poor infrastructure and high unemployment that pushed many young people overseas.

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On the streets of Marseille, the home city in France of a large community of Algerian origin, some residents had praise for the long-serving president.

"He fought the fundamentalists, the terrorists (in the 1990s). He did a lot. He brought peace with the amnesty. To be fair... he's a president who did a lot for Algeria and I pay tribute to him," said resident Hamid.

Ill health and protests

In his later years, Bouteflika's ill health started weighing on his credibility as a leader. 

Despite suffering a mini-stroke in April 2013 that affected his speech and forced him to use a wheelchair, he decided to seek a fourth mandate. 

His bid in 2019 for a fifth term sparked angry protests that soon grew into a pro-democracy movement known as "Hirak".

When he lost the backing of the army, he was forced to step down.

The Hirak protests continued, with demands for a full overhaul of the ruling system in place since Algeria's independence from France in 1962.

Some key Bouteflika-era figures were eventually jailed in corruption cases, including Bouteflika's powerful brother Said.

Bouteflika's successor Tebboune was elected in late 2019 on a record low turnout, with the Hirak calling for a boycott.

But the protest movement was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic and has struggled to regain momentum as the government cracks down on opposition.

With the Bouteflika-era old guard still largely ruling the country, his legacy is mixed.

For analyst Hasni Abidi, despite his long and undisputed stretch in power, Bouteflika failed to enact "any political, institutional or economic reform".