May 24, 2013 4:34 pm

Algeria gets jitters over absent president

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika©AFP

The Algerian leader’s handlers described the problem as a minor stroke – a small medical incident that required him to take some tests in Paris.

A month later, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s absence from his country – and from public view – has become a crisis that has raised fears over the political and economic future of the country, with key elections coming up next year.

“The consequences [of his absence] are clear,” said Faycal Metawi, an Algerian journalist and political analyst. “Bouteflika is the head of the cabinet. The cabinet has to authenticate each law, so at the moment all security and economic decisions and projects have been put on hold until the president is back.”

Mr Bouteflika, 76, won the presidency in 1999 after a decade-long civil war, the savagery of which still haunts Algeria. Despite rampant corruption and persistent unemployment, he has presided over an era of relative peace and prosperity.

The president was taken to the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris on April 27 after suffering what officials then described as a “mini-stroke”. Algerian officials insist that Mr Bouteflika is recovering and will soon resume his duties. But many people have raised doubts over this. French and some Algerian media have quoted anonymous sources as saying his health has been deteriorating.

The uncertainty has deepened because of the Algerian authorities’ awkward handling of the matter. Television news announcers read terse, ambiguous statements insisting the president is healthy, but without any pictures to support their claims.

“We have given information to the population on the president’s illness [and] we have followed up with reassurances on his recovery and the doctors’ recommendations,” Abdel Malak Sellal, the prime minister, was quoted as saying at a public appearance on Wednesday. “That is enough. We do not have to harp on about this issue every minute.”

In recent days, the government has betrayed its nervousness by suspending two newspapers – Mon Journal and its sister, Arabic-language, edition Djaridati – and charging them with spreading false information, after they quoted French medical sources as saying Mr Bouteflika had slipped into a coma.

The press gag appeared only to strengthen suspicions about the president’s state. “This is the first time since Bouteflika took office that a newspaper has been blocked from publication and legally pursued,” the papers’ owner, Hicham Aboud, told the broadcaster Al Jazeera.

Opposition parties have added to the pressure. Some are calling for the triggering of a constitutional clause that allows for the replacement of the president if he is unable to perform his duties.

“If he is not capable of governing, we must go, without delay, to early presidential elections,” one opposition leader, Ali Fawzi Rebaine, told reporters. Others have demanded the release of Mr Bouteflika’s medical records.

Algeria’s leadership, still largely dominated by the military and security services, is complex and secretive, making it impossible to discern how it views the crisis and whom it views as a potential successor to Mr Bouteflika, who may be unable to influence the transition if health issues persist. Despite his flaws, many Algerians have embraced him as an alternative to the shadowy security forces.

“Who is in charge . . . in Bouteflika’s absence, or is it the ‘black box’ in the regime?” the influential daily newspaper El Khabar wrote in an editorial. “To what extent is the regime prepared to enter the post-Bouteflika era without exposing the country to a violent tremor and at the least cost?”

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