Algeria leader’s loyalists cast doubt on his grip on power

Friday 13/11/2015
Some analysts argue the letter could be a pre-emptive move

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s backers, including close political figures, said they sent him a letter requesting a meeting to check first-hand whether he is in full command of the North African country.
The 19 signatories of the letter in­clude the Battle of Algiers heroine Zohra Drif Bitat and her former Na­tional Liberation Front’s guerrilla comrades Abdelkader Guerroudj and Mustapha Fettal.
Women rights activist Khalida Toumi, who was Bouteflika’s Cul­ture minister and articulate policy defender, and writer Rachid Boud­jedra were among prominent fig­ures who made the announcement.
“I know the president very well. I have doubt that some decisions are indeed his own decisions,” Toumi said.
The letter has seemingly embar­rassed the government and Boutef­lika’s aides, who insist the ailing leader is in charge. However, they have not given tangible proof but­tressing their statements other than video footage.
Bouteflika, 78, suffered a stroke in 2014 and he was hospitalised in France for months. That fuelled speculation that he might step down to allow a transition of pow­er. He has rarely been seen in pub­lic since, usually appearing on state television receiving foreign digni­taries.
“This group has deliberately stated that if their request was ignored more moves will follow. That means all in all they have al­ready designed a course of action aimed at wrecking the plan being hatched to ensure the succession of the president. That suggests the 19 know something about it,” wrote Algerian newspaper Liberté in a commentary about the letter writ­ers.
They had told Bouteflika: “We demand to meet with you so as to share our deep concerns about the country’s future and appeal to you to intervene in these very danger­ous circumstances.”
Though they said they handed the letter to Bouteflika’s private secretary, the signatories added that they alerted the media be­cause “we are afraid our letter will not reach you”.
El Watan printed a cartoon under the headline The letter embarrasses Bouteflika’s allies showing a giant bouncer blocking the entrance at the president’s office.
There has been no formal com­ment from Bouteflika about the letter, leaving party leaders close to him to parry with the letter’s signa­tories.
Concerns about Bouteflika’s health were brushed aside by Na­tional Liberation Front — the rul­ing party — chief Ammar Saadani, who has argued repeatedly that Bouteflika’s mental and cognitive abilities are intact and he is fully in charge as visiting foreign presi­dents and ministers could confirm.
He insisted the letter signato­ries have no constitutional right to oblige the president to meet with them. Saadani, however, drew criticism from those saying he is not entitled to speak on behalf of Bouteflika.
Some analysts argue the let­ter could be a pre-emptive move against Algeria’s powerful military chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah’s possible ambitions to succeed Bouteflika.
“The target of the letter is likely to be Ahmed Gaid Salah…, who is the strong man in the regime now, considering the sickness of the president. The current situation makes him among the leading can­didate to replace Bouteflika and he is one of the decision makers [the letter writers] reject,” wrote El- Khabar daily.
Although Bouteflika was re-elected for a fourth consecutive term in 2014, and another vote isn’t due until 2019, several opposition parties in Algeria have demanded an early presidential election. They claim that Bouteflika’s poor health is a major obstacle to proper gov­ernance and the policymaking pro­cess.
Bouteflika took office in 1999 when Algeria was in the grip of brutal civil war between the mili­tary and Islamist militants. He has been widely credited for ending the strife and restoring economic stability.
In 2008, Bouteflika scrapped constitutional rules that limited the president to two terms in office and won re-election the following year with 90% of the vote.
Under Bouteflika’s watch, Alge­ria’s ruling elite kept a firm grip on power as upheaval ripped through neighbouring Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2011 when Bouteflika made a series of concessions to the public.
In February 2011, the 19-year state of emergency was lifted. Two months later, the president prom­ised to revise the fundamental law to “strengthen democracy”. And in September 2011, he allowed private radio and television stations.
The government also launched a huge spending programme to damp widespread frustration with high unemployment rates and shortage of housing.