Algerian President Hospitalized as Strike Points to Power Struggle

Abdelaziz Bouteflika is released from a French hospital as cracks appear in his country’s secretive regime.

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers, December 19, 2012
Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers, December 19, 2012 (AFP/Denis Allard)

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was released from a French hospital on Sunday after a two-day stay, according to the BBC, at a time of rising unrest in his North African country.

Earlier, the Reuters news agency and a local French newspaper reported that Bouteflika was admitted to a clinic in Grenoble. Official Algerian sources denied the story.

A veteran of Algeria’s war on independence from France, the septuagenarian Bouteflika suffered a stroke early last year when he was also rushed to a hospital in France. He has since returned to the country several times for checkups.

Bouteflika nevertheless stood for reelection in April and won a fourth term with 82 percent support.

Although no definitive proof of election fraud emerged, the vote was generally seen as a ceremonial affair, organized to legitimize the ruling National Liberation Front’s monopoly on power.

However, polls showed many Algerians genuinely preferred Bouteflika and the National Liberation Front clique to democracy. The last time the country tried free elections, an Islamist party threatened to take over, triggering a civil war that lasted more than a decade.

Bouteflika, who served as foreign minister under Algerian strongman Houari Boumediene between 1963 and 1978, presided over the end of the civil war in 2002.

Algeria has largely escaped the sort of civil unrest that toppled other North African regimes in the 2011 “Arab Spring.” Oil and natural gas exports allow the country to alleviate poverty and unemployment but dissatisfaction with its secretive regime — which is believed to be run by veterans of the war of independence who still occupy top military and security posts — appears to be rising.

Last month, police officers in the oasis town of Ghardaïa went on strike to protest low salaries and nepotism. Officers in Algiers, the capital, demonstrated in solidarity, demanding unionization and the removal of national police chief Abdelghani Hamel.

Hamel was appointed by Bouteflika in 2010 after his predecessor, Ali Tounsi, was killed that year. Tounsi was believed to be an ally of Algeria’s powerful intelligence chief, General Mohamed Mediène, a hardliner who has been in office since 1992.

Abdallah Brahimi writes at Sada, a publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that unrest has spread to other security sector workers, “especially the firefighters, who like the police are overseen by the pro-Bouteflika Ministry of Interior.”

Typically, the government caved in to the economic demands of the strikers, promising large retroactive salary increases and access to affordable housing, while ignoring the political demand for Hamel’s removal.

Just as typically, the meaning of the police strikes is ambiguous. Brahimi suspects a power struggle is going on between Bouteflika’s faction and Mediène’s secret service with the former seeking to curtail the army’s and intelligence agency’s influence in politics and the latter responding by putting pressure on the government.

In any event, the police actions themselves “appear to be a secondary concern to the Bouteflika government,” he reports. It is throwing money at the issue to buy time. “But this short-sighted solution is highlighing the government’s vulnerability and its lack of legitimacy among Algerian people,” Brahimi warns.

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