For the past six weeks, the biggest country in Africa (and the Arab World) has been running without its president. On the afternoon of April 27, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in charge since 1999, was taken ill with what the official media described as a minor stroke, and immediately flown out of the country to receive medical treatment at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris. Within minutes, both the APS official news agency and national TV channels confirmed the news. The Wikipedia entry for accident ischémique transitoire (AIT,) suddenly became the subject of intense deciphering by the media and members of the public alike.
The initial reaction to the news could be best described as cautious scepticism. For a start, that news of presidential health issues were broadcast by official outlets - in a country where official secrecy is the default modus operandi - struck many as surprising. Some even ventured the rather ungenerous speculation that this was a highly choreographed move by the presidential camp, intended to stoke up sympathy in the run-up to an announcement of a fourth consecutive bid at next year’s presidential elections.
Moreover, the episode has also revived the debate over the government’s record, notably in terms of public health provision. Within days of Bouteflika’s arrival at Val-de-Grâce, protests were held outside the hospital denouncing the two-tier nature of health access back home. Why is it, some of the protesters asked, that the elite pays lip service to a national health service it never uses? Such questions remain deeply resonant in a country where access to free universal healthcare is being slowly eroded, to the apparent indifference of those at the top.
The episode has also provided an opportunity to vent their frustration at the government’s dismal approach to communications. Less than six months since the In Amenas hostage-taking crisis, the state’s communication strategy – or, rather, the virtual absence thereof – has again come in for intense criticisms from opposition politicians and the public alike. Beyond the initial circumspect announcement, official channels have largely ignored the subject, sending millions of Algerians to the private press, online sources and international media organisations for updates on the situation. Predictably, this silence has also fed relentless rumour-mongering, from the absurd (the President is well, and has never left Algiers) to the decidedly morbid (the President has been dead for days).
Of course, such secrecy is hardly new. The obsession of successive governments with controlling the flow of information, both domestically and to the wider world, has elevated official obfuscation and evasion into an art-form. (Some officials have even boasted this was a deliberate survival strategy intended to “keep everyone guessing”.)
However, while such a strategy might have been possible (let alone advisable) in 1973 or 1983, it seems positively reckless in 2013, and has inflicted real damage on the government’s attempts to show it remains “in control”. In a particularly awkward episode, Algerians received the most recent update on their president’s heath from the President of … France, Francois Hollande, who answered questions on the topic during a live interview on Thursday evening. (Within minutes, a YouTube clip of the interview was circulating under the title “The French President of Algeria announces imminent Bouteflika trip to Algiers”).
As to the political ramifications of the current imbroglio, many observers have already pointed to an uncomfortable, though striking, historical parallel. In the winter of 1978, as then-President Houari Boumedienne was receiving treatment in the USSR, official media insisted for weeks that he was suffering from a minor cold, before eventually announcing he had succumbed, after more than a month in a coma, to Waldenström's macroglobulinemia, a rare blood disease. The battle for succession that ensued (which ended with the defeat of the favourite, a certain Abdelaziz Bouteflika) is today making many observers nervous about what lies ahead in the weeks to come.
Indeed, as the President’s absence has turned from days into weeks, the mood among the political class seems to have moved from one of sombre pieties predicting a swift recovery to increasingly strident exchanges over what happens next. The hitherto unthinkable prospect that Bouteflika might not see out his term now seems eminently plausible and, unsurprisingly, this has led to frenetic jostling and re-positioning by those in the race for succession. In particular, many of those who had initially thrown their weight behind a fourth bid are now hurriedly considering a run themselves. Those against another Bouteflika term, meanwhile, have already moved on to request that a constitutional mechanism - enshrined in Article 88, and designed to assess the President’s ability to fulfil his functions - be put in motion.
Meanwhile, amidst all the bickering and deal-making, social upheaval in Algeria shows no sign of abating. According to official Gendarmerie Nationale (National Guard) figures, more than 9000 protests of various kinds have already taken place in 2013 alone. To take a notable and recent example, more than 1600 workers at the strategic oil-extraction economic zone of Hass R’mel have been on hunger strike since Thursday, demanding that the political and corporate authorities live up to promises made earlier this year to increase wages and improve working conditions. With the state’s economic future in jeopardy as oil revenues are destined to decline, the task ahead for the country’s leaders looks more formidable than ever.
Two weeks ago, Bouteflika was moved to the Invalides hospital, also in Paris, and has been declared to be in convalescence. This is certainly good news on a human level. Politically, however, this episode, regardless of the outcome, might have convinced many, including Bouteflika’s most ardent supporters, that, at 76, an enforced end to one of the most remarkable, and defining, of political careers in the nation’s history might be upon us. In many ways, as some have already noted, the post-Bouteflika era has already begun.