Video of ailing Algerian president sparks concern
Tunis - A 41-second video clip showing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika struggling with frail health as he received visiting French Prime Minister Manuel Valls triggered concern among Algerians about their leader’s health and the country’s stability.
Images showed Bouteflika, 79, with a haggard gaze unable to put his shaking right hand on his lap. He struggled to join his hands together; his eyes fixed at some point in front of him.
The footage, re-tweeted by Valls at the end of his April 9th-10th visit to Algiers, went viral on social media.
“Algerians cried, worried, agonised, felt humiliated and prayed that ‘God protects Algeria’ as they saw the pictures,” wrote the country’s influential French-language daily El Watan.
Bouteflika, a hero of the Algerian war of independence against France, has been president since 1999. He won re-election for a fourth five-year term in 2014, despite having suffered a stroke the year before. His death or incapacity would risk throwing the vast, energy-rich North African country into turmoil at a time it is struggling to deal with falling oil prices and the challenge of Islamist extremism.
Commenting on the video, Algeria’s main Arabic-language newspaper El Khabar commented: “The picture underlined the falseness of the claims by Bouteflika’s backers that he is fully in command of the country’s affairs and following events and files closely.”
Its leading commentator, Saad Bouokba, said the footage was “another snapshot of the nation’s shame”.
Opposition parties, which have often alleged that Bouteflika is hostage to a clique that has staged an internal coup to seize power, asked for the presidential office to be declared “vacant” as a first step towards an election.
Such has been the uncertainty over the health of Bouteflika following his 2013 stroke, that even some of his former closest associates — known as a Group of 19 — wondered publicly in December 2015 whether he was still in control.
“This is a picture that shocks. It is a terrible scene that sent shivers down people’s spine. It hurts the nation’s feelings to the highest level,” commented El Watan on April 13th.
“The inevitable question arises about the ability of the head of the state to carry out his duties,” it added.
Political analyst Essaid Wakli said: “The picture of Bouteflika is so degrading that state radio ran an old picture of him with Valls to illustrate an article at its website.”
Bouteflika’s office spokeswoman Farida Bessa said: “I’m not a doctor. Thus, I’m not able to comment on the president’s condition.”
But the main ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party said: “The president’s health is good and his condition is no business for the French media.”
“We ask the French media not play with fire as the relations between the two countries are not stable and the wounds are still raw,” added FLN spokesman Houcine Kheldoune.
Bouteflika has not addressed the nation directly since May 12th, 2012, and struggled to read from a prepared text on April 28th, 2014, during his swearing-in ceremony.
“Algeria’s prestige is undermined by a president who does not preside,” said former prime minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali.
“The president lacks the capacity of discernment and his entourage lacks dignity and Algeria is taking a hit in the process,” said former minister Abdelaziz Rahabi.
Analyst Hacen Ouali cited Algeria’s economic woes due to falling oil prices and violence and instability in neighbouring countries and called for a rapid solution.
“Time is not an ally of Algeria. It is urgent to pull the country out of this dangerous impasse,” he said.
Jil Jadid, a movement that is part of a coalition of leading political groups, called for early elections, saying “the vacancy of power is now verified”.