Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s former surveillance-state strongman, dies at 84

By Stephanie Hanes,

Zohra Bensemra Reuters

Algerian presidential candidate Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999. He went on to rule the country for two decades.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the former Algerian president who fought in his country’s bloody independence struggle against France and then maneuvered through coups, conflicts and political intrigue to become the longest-ruling leader of Africa’s largest country, has died at 84.

State television announced his death on Friday, citing a statement from the office of current president Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Additional details were not immediately available.

Mr. Bouteflika was rarely seen after being hospitalized for a stroke in 2013. He won a fourth term in office the next year thanks to much-criticized changes in the constitution, but resigned in 2019 following pressure from the army and mass public protests that brought an end to his two-decade rule.

Once considered a dapper and Western-leaning international diplomat, Mr. Bouteflika came to reflect what Western foreign-policy analysts often call the “opaqueness” of Algeria, a U.S. ally with significant oil and anti-terrorism capabilities, as well as a secretive government and anti-democratic tendencies.

He was the youngest foreign minister in the world when he took that post in 1963, and 11 years later, turned heads as the youngest president ever of the U.N. General Assembly, where in eloquent French he called for unity among the countries of the so-called Third World.

Denis Balibouse


Bouteflika in 2005.

When in 1999 he became president of Algeria in an election his competitors said was rigged, he ended a traumatizing civil war with Islamists, built commercial and political ties with the West, and mercilessly squashed terrorist uprisings, such as the 2013 al-Qaeda takeover of the Tigantourine gas facility near the city of In Amenas. Militants took about 800 people hostage in that situation.

Although the terrorists did not succeed in blowing up the site, dozens of foreign workers were killed along with the militants.

Mr. Bouteflika also operated with a level of secrecy and surveillance — and, critics said, corruption — that made real democracy impossible. He jailed journalists and ousted opponents, used periodic handouts to placate an increasingly unemployed and youthful populace, and altered his nation’s laws so he could remain in power.

Although details about his roots have been kept murky, most accounts agree that Mr. Bouteflika was born March 2, 1937, in Oujda, Morocco, which borders Algeria.

It was a time of growing social unrest in Algeria, a territory annexed by France, with the colonial pied-noir government growing harsher in its attempt to stem restiveness among indigenous Algerians. Some reports say Mr. Bouteflika’s parents had been seeking refuge when they fled to Morocco from their Algerian home near the city of Tlemcen.

On Nov. 1, 1954, bolstered by the withdrawal of French troops from Vietnam months earlier, Algerian rebels launched what would become one of the most gruesome and defining struggles of an Arab-speaking Muslim population against colonial overlords.

Across the country, the new Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), set off bombs in crowded nightclubs, shot European pedestrians and began a campaign of mutilations and killings that shook the French government, which responded with a crushing campaign of torture, repression and mutilation.

Around this time, Mr. Bouteflika traveled to Algeria for secondary school. He soon shifted his attention from studies to the independence struggle and, at 19, joined the FLN.

As part of the group’s armed unit, he rose to become secretary to Houari Boumédiène, an FLN commander who would eventually become Algeria’s most beloved leader.

After eight bloody years, the French conceded to the independence fighters. Ahmed Ben Bella became president of the newly sovereign Algeria, and appointed the 26-year-old Bouteflika as his minister of foreign affairs. But the younger man far outlasted the elder. In 1965, Bouteflika’s longtime mentor, army commander Boumédiène, rolled his tanks to Ben Bella’s residence before dawn and took the presidency for himself.

It was Mr. Bouteflika who presented independent Algeria to the world. Barely 30, he represented his country during everything from border conflicts with Morocco to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which Algeria fought on the side of the Arabs, to negotiations with the United States and Europe about the nationalization of Algeria’s oil industry.

Dave Pickoff


Bouteflika meets Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1975.

At the same time, he cut a cosmopolitan figure in world capitals. “He was young, very fashionably dressed, with boots, and he would typically smoke a large cigar,” said William B. Quandt, a professor emeritus of politics at the University of Virginia who was on the National Security Council under presidents Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Mr. Bouteflika mingled comfortably with other diplomats as he pushed on issues related to the developing and Arab world, in particular the rights of the Palestinians.

In 1974, Mr. Bouteflika was elected unanimously by fellow delegates to preside over the U.N. General Assembly, where he became not only the youngest president, but one of the most controversial.

He suspended apartheid South Africa from participating in the assembly and gave a head-of-state welcome for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — actions that irked Western delegates for Arafat’s connection to terrorism but thrilled leaders of the Arab bloc and other emerging nations.

Zohra Bensemra


Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat embraces Bouteflika after arriving in the Algerian capital in 2001.

“The West is listening to the Third World and the Third World is finally being heard,” Mr. Bouteflika said shortly after his election. “The cohesion and firmly based solidarity of the Third World have imposed a global vision and have opened the way to a new world order.”

But after Boumédiène died in 1978 — the result of an unusual blood disease, some said; poisoning, claimed others — Mr. Bouteflika found himself charged by the new regime with misusing government funds. He fled Algeria, spending the next decade, according to reports, in consulting or business ventures in Europe and the Persian Gulf states. While he was gone, his homeland descended into civil war, the outgrowth of an Islamist insurgency that erupted after the army canceled 1992 elections about to be won by the Islamic Salvation Front.

Mr. Bouteflika returned in time to stand for Algeria’s 1999 presidential election. The day before the vote, all of the other candidates dropped out, saying that ballot boxes were being stuffed in favor of Mr. Bouteflika. He assumed the presidency with a minor percentage of the vote; many Algerians stayed home.

Mr. Bouteflika announced an amnesty plan to end the civil war, in which about 100,000 Algerians had died. He put the proposal up for a referendum, asking citizens whether they supported his efforts to let most fighters put down their arms without facing punishment. A huge percentage of war-weary Algerians voted in support of the measure.

It was, many analysts say, the stamp of legitimacy for Mr. Bouteflika’s presidency. To the relief of a traumatized nation, the violence of the civil war slowed and nearly stopped.

For the rest of his term, and into his second, Mr. Bouteflika worked to manage a country with growing oil revenue and internationally attractive hydrocarbon deposits; Algeria would become one of Europe’s largest suppliers of natural gas. But Algeria was also freighted with high unemployment and an unbalanced demographic weight toward the young that has destabilized other countries in the region.

Mr. Bouteflika’s government squashed protests and strikes, and Amnesty International expressed alarm at the continued repression of social and economic rights activists. With the wounds of the civil war still fresh, the government took an even firmer stance against Islamist insurgents, especially after terrorist groups operating under al-Qaeda’s umbrella began bombing targets in the capital city of Algiers in 2007.

When Mr. Bouteflika moved to alter the constitution to run for third and fourth terms, Algerians greeted the news with a collective shrug. Mr. Bouteflika may have been changing laws, and maneuvering political adversaries out of their jobs, but this was the way things were in Algeria, commentators said, where backroom power brokering was the norm.

But in seeking a bid for a fifth term, he apparently pushed too far. Thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Algiers in an unusually daring display of public opposition that dislodged him from power in April 2019. Tebboune, a former prime minister who was seen as the military’s preferred candidate, was elected president that December. About 40 percent of eligible voters participated in the election. Thousands of protesters continued to hold weekly demonstrations for more than a year afterward.

“It’s an entire population that is waking up after a long period of national hibernation,” sociologist Zoubir Arous told the New York Times after Mr. Bouteflika’s resignation.

Adam Bernstein and Harrison Smith contributed to this report.

Source: WP