Bouteflika: Algeria's longest-serving president


Algiers (AFP)

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who on Monday announced he is pulling out of a bid for a fifth term, is Algeria's longest-serving president and a veteran of the independence struggle who held on to power during years of ill health.

His presidency survived the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled other leaders in the region.

But Bouteflika's bid this year for a fifth term in office sparked public anger and brought tens of thousands onto the streets demanding he step down after two decades in power.

Dubbed Boutef by Algerians, he had helped foster 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.

Bouteflika has had a history of medical problems and often flew to France or Switzerland for treatment.

A stroke in 2013 affected his mobility and speech, and he has used a wheelchair ever since.

Known for his three-piece suit even in the stifling heat, Bouteflika is respected by many for his role in ending the 1990s 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.

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

After his election he addressed critics who saw him as another puppet of the military, saying: "I'm not three-quarters of a president."

Paradoxically, it was only after his stroke that Bouteflika was able to consolidate 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 previously immovable leader General Mohamed Mediene, better known as Toufik, after a quarter century in the post.

- Long spell in exile -

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 president, Ahmed Ben Bella.

He became foreign minister the following year, a post he held for more than a decade, but 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 cancelled the 1991 elections, which an Islamist party had been poised to win, sparking a decade of bloodletting.

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

He initially faced six rivals, but when the opponents dropped out, crying foul, he found himself the only candidate.

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 paid off, leading to a sharp decrease in violence that helped propel Bouteflika to a second term in 2004.

His third term in 2009 followed a constitutional amendment allowing him to stand again.

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

But a lack of opportunity continues to drive many Algerians abroad as youth unemployment remains high.

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.

For political commentator Rashid Tlemcani, Bouteflika "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".

- Out of public eye -

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

He had already been hospitalised in Paris in 2005 because of intestinal problems from which he never fully recovered.

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

He did not even campaign and voted from a wheelchair, but still won an official 81 percent of the vote.

But it was Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term in elections due to be held in April that proved the last straw for many Algerians.

His candidacy was formally submitted on March 3 while he was in Switzerland for what the presidency described as another round of routine medical tests.

His pledge not to serve a full term if re-elected failed to quell public anger and protests continued as his office announced his return from Geneva a week later.

He finally announced his decision to withdraw his candidacy on Monday, saying he was responding to "a pressing demand that you have been numerous in making to me".

Bouteflika's tenure has been overshadowed by the bloody repression of protests in the Kabylie region in spring 2001 and corruption scandals, while major challenges remain, including regular jihadist attacks.

"Bouteflika failed to turn Algeria into a modern country, with real institutions," according to Myriam Ait-Aoudia, a professor of political science.