Algeria's former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika dies at 84

He had rarely been seen in public before his departure since a stroke in 2013

Former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has died at 84 years old, the president's office said on Friday, more than two years after he stepped down under pressure from mass protests and the military.

Bouteflika, a veteran of Algeria's war for independence, ruled the North African country for two decades before his resignation in April 2019, when street demonstrations erupted following the announcement of his plan to seek a fifth term.

He suffered a stroke in 2013 and was rarely seen in public since then.

After quitting, he had stayed out of the public eye, living at a residence in western Algiers.

A report on broadcaster ENTV did not give the cause of death or information about funeral arrangements.

Bouteflika became Algeria's first foreign minister after independence from France in 1962. As a president of the UN General Assembly, he invited former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to address the body in 1974.

He also demanded that China be given a UN seat and denounced apartheid in South Africa. He acted as a prominent voice for the developing nations movement.

Born on March 2, 1937, in the town of Oujda in French Morocco, Bouteflika was among Algeria’s most enduring politicians.

He came to power in 1999 after taking part in a bloody civil war that killed nearly 200,000 people.

Called "Boutef" by Algerians, he won respect for fostering peace – notably with an amnesty law that prompted thousands of Islamist fighters to hand in their weapons – and bringing stability to the country.

He presided over economic growth and a rebuilding of the country.

Bouteflika was elected for three more consecutive five-year terms, most recently in 2014.

Journalist Farid Alilat, who wrote a biography of Bouteflika, said that at the height of his rule in the early 2000s, the president had "all the levers of power" with the backing of the army and the intelligence services.

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

But as the price of oil, which makes up much of Algeria's state budget, slumped, the economy slowed. People asked how the vast wealth had left them with poor infrastructure and high unemployment, which pushed many young people to emigrate.

They took to the streets, demanding action from an administration they accused of becoming a corrupt cartel of security, business and political elites.

Then, Bouteflika’s ill-health started to weigh on his administration.

He suffered a mini-stroke in April 2013 that affected his speech and forced him to use a wheelchair. However, he decided to seek a fourth mandate despite growing public doubts about his ability to rule.

His bid in 2019 for a fifth term sparked angry protests that soon grew into a mass movement against his regime.

The Hirak movement in pictures

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

The mass protests, called the Hirak movement, continued. People demanded a full overhaul of the ruling system that had been in place since Algerian independence.

But although some central Bouteflika-era figures were eventually jailed in corruption cases, including Bouteflika's powerful brother Said, the long-sought changes did not happen.

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

A referendum on a constitutional amendment, regarded as trying to torpedo the Hirak movement, generated even less interest from voters.

The Covid-19 pandemic took the heat out of the protests, which have struggled to regain momentum since.

The Bouteflika-era old guard still largely run the country, leaving many mixed on the legacy of his two decades in power.

"For his entire life, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was driven by two obsessions: take power and keep it at any price," Alilat said.

"But it was this obsession ... that sparked the revolt that drove him from power."

Updated: September 18th 2021, 12:01 PM
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