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The Imperial Presidency of Algeria's Bouteflika

By February 21, 2009

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President for life: Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika is North Africa's Hugo Chavez, minus the anti-Americanism and anti-poverty programs.

In 1999, toward the end of the Algerian civil war--pitting Islamists against the Algerian military and each other, and claiming 150,000 lives--Abdelaziz Bouteflika ran as the military's choice for the presidency. He was virtually unopposed (a lone challenger withdrew, claiming fraud. In Algeria, the boycott at election time is the establishment's most powerful ally). Bouteflika won and promulgated a civil harmony law that reduced violence.

Algerian flag
Bouteflika won again in 2004, allegedly with 84% of the vote, although the election was hardly fair or free and numerous parties and candidates were banned from fielding challengers. He spent most of 2007 bedridden in Artemio Cruz fashion, never quite taking the final leap a good many Algerians expected him to take. Or at least give up on aiming for a third five-year term, which the Algerian constitution at the time forbade.

No problem: Bouteflika is North Africa's Hugo Chavez: What Chavez pulled off last Sunday in Venezuela (abolish term limits for the presidency by popular referendum) Bouteflika got done last November by way of a much easier parliamentary coup, most members of parliament being under his control.

On Feb. 12, Bouteflika, 71, made it official. He would run for a third term. The election is set for April 9.

By today, some 27 candidates had entered the race to challenge Bouteflika. But they're mostly unknown political place-settings, while another batch of would-be candidates are pulling the boycott lever again. In the words of one opposition figure, "this election is a bit like pretending to shake up everything to leave everything in place" ("Cette election c'est un peu de faire semblant de tout bouger pour que tout reste en place.")

One interesting candidate: Louisa Hanoun of the Labor Party (Parti des travailleurs). In 2004 she became the first woman to run for president in Algerian history. She'll be trying again.

What It means to the West

Don't stay up for this one. The outcome on April 9 was pretty much written in the stoning of the constitution when parliament abolished term limits in November. For Algeria, it'll be a more ceremonial reminder of the country's post-colonial authoritarian tradition: Repression by Algerians, as opposed to repression by the French.

For the West, and the United States in particular, the Algerian election should be a reminder of how much American ideals of democratization in the Middle East diverge from actual American policy of sticking with authoritarian strongmen at the expense of democracy.

The Bush administration loved Bouteflika. "These elections," the administration said in a tone-deaf congratulatory message following Bouteflika's reelection in 2004, "represent another step on the road toward democracy in Algeria. The President also congratulates the Algerian people for their dedication to building a democratic political system." The Obama administration hasn't signaled a different direction.

Both administrations may prefer the relative stability of the Bouteflika regime to the alternative: a return to Islamist influence and potential rule: It was the Islamists' near-victory in the 1992 parliamentary elections, which were free and fair, which precipitated the military's intervention and, as a consequence, the bloody civil war.

So goes the Middle East's most favored deal-making, so far as the West is concerned. When it's a choice between repression and western-leaning stability on one hand and democracy and potential Islamization on the other, repression wins every time. The irony: repression is the Islamists' fertilizer. Unlike old strongmen like Bouteflika, ironies don't come with an expiration date.

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February 22, 2009 at 3:35 am
(1) An Algerian says:

I am an Algerian living IN Algeria and I can tell you that Bouteflika is a GREAT man and a GREAT president despite ALL what some say of him. He is the ablest person I know to be Algeria’s President. My country enjoys Democracy whatever you say; need a proof? Take a look at our newspapers and see what freedom the media enjoy. So please don’t pretend to know MY country because you happened to read about it or visited it. Ask people in the street, of course they have their problems like everyone else but if they vote, who would be their choice?

A Proud Algerian who will vote Bouteflika Incha’Allah

February 22, 2009 at 6:34 am
(2) Djamel says:

I’m proud Algerian too. I wish my country was democratic. The president Boutasrika changed the constitution in order to remain in power (Is that what you call democracy!!!)despite a dreadful situation in algeria, social, economic and cultural. Some mihat argue that we have a few dollars in the bank (Thanks to the export fo petrol. One question remain: why the majority of young peaople choose to cross the sea (Haragas)rather than stay in Algeria?????

February 22, 2009 at 8:16 am
(3) Pierre says:

The two comments above sum it up.

February 22, 2009 at 2:46 pm
(4) Mehdi from San Francisco, CA says:

This is an answer for the first comment above:
You don’t really have to go out to vote on that day, He will win by %85 or more!! its called the “Magic Ballot Box”, or MBB. This is how MBB works, You insert a NO vote in the ballot box and once it reaches the inside of it , it turns in to a Yes vote. Its very simple and in some cases you don’t even need to insert your ballot in the box, its already filled with a YES for Bouteflika.
But , in your opinion, Bouteflika a Great Man ???? and you say that you leave in Algeria ? is that correct ?? I do differ on that !
Well, let me tell you this:it is true that I’ve been leaving in the United States in the last 14 years, and i dont need to leave in Algeria to notice the the lack of decent hospitals or anything close to a health care system. The youth are unable to find a job ( Even if Algeria foreign reserves have reached all time records thanks to the high prices of oil and natural gaz seen in the last few years)
The educational system is in a total mess, otherwise people would be smarter to not to go to vote.

I am also Algerian and I would like to say that what we see in Algeria today is not any different from the Boumedienne years marked by tyranny and authoritarianism. And let me add that this elections , if we can call them as such, are close to what can be characterize in certain countries as a “mascarade”.
Algerians are ruled by a gang of brutal and incompetent military officers who only think of themselves and their Swiss bank accounts. its basically a Mafia !!!

hahaha, Bouteflika a great Man ?? so was G.W. Bush !! and Adolf Hitler, Saddam, Stalin …

March 6, 2009 at 5:10 am
(5) Mourad , London says:

Unfortunately algeria is still a disguised dictatorship , this election is just a smoke screen to show to the world they improved their image but in fact nothing changed still the same generals who run the country and the proof one lousy TV channel for 30 million people

July 3, 2009 at 12:03 pm
(6) Elizabeth says:

This is the first time I have seen such a biased report on about.com.
I have researched about.com many times to find information on subjects ranging from personal to academic and have always until now found the site to be exceptionnally informative. If I wanted to get a completely biased report on a topic I can look at many other sites. I usally expect about.com to present a fair and neutral perspective on the subject I am searching, but in this report I am truly disappointed to view an extremely biased report and would ask about.com to consider another reporter other than Pierre providing information to the public that is foundationally informational rather than manipulated with clear political bias.

July 5, 2009 at 10:08 am
(7) Pierre says:

Elizabeth, before crying foul and using phrases like “foundationally informational” to contrast your seriousness against my alleged bias, I suggest you address the issues raised in this post on their merits–dispute what you wish, present evidence to the contrary, make your arguments–before making what amounts to vague generalizing. You’re confusing factually-based, and foundationally quite informational, perspective with bias. Then again, you can never be too biased in favor of democracy and human rights, and against puffed up tyrants like Bouteflika. The comments above yours present some interesting perspectives too, if you can see past your wagging finger.

July 24, 2009 at 6:47 pm
(8) lamine says:

im an algerian and proud of it , the only president who helped and orgnized algeria after boumedien is bouteflika , he added the peace of mind that we needed in our country, not like you brother form san francisco.I think that your are a harki that right.
lamine ,ohio

January 2, 2011 at 9:22 pm
(9) Lamia says:

I am well aware that this comment is somewhat invalid (considering the time that has passed since the article was written) but regardless, I would like to have my thoughts implimented should anyone come across this article in the future.

I completely understand that there are fundmental flaws in the Algerian political system. The fact that Bouteflika changed the constitution in order to run for a third term, is somewhat disheartening and exhudes the sense of a dictatorship.

However, when we consider Algeria before Bouteflika was appointed President, we might be less inclined to think negatively of him.

I remember the days when I was unable to go to Algeria to visit family because of the high terrorist activity. I remember watching the news and constantly seeing dead bodies killed in the most brutal manner.

When I rememeber this, when I see the pain and suffering my country went through, I say to myself ‘long live Bouteflika’.

Because whatever you may think of this man, whatever criticisms you can come up with against him, he fixed our country to a point where we are not so scared to go to the shopping mall, or to go to a concert of some kind. We are not paranoid about every knock at the door.

The second stages of the 1992 elections were cancelled, Bouteflika had nothing to do with it. So we cannot condone him for the actions of the military 7 years before his elections.

And so again I say, long live Bouteflika. His 1999 amnesty made a huge difference to our country and though I cannot forgive these “reformed” terrorists as Bouteflika did, I would rather my people live in peace (or as close as we can get to it) and let those who caused harm upon others, be dealt with by that man upstairs that we shall all be judged by in the end.

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