Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s longest-serving president, dies at the age of 84

ALGIERS – Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who joined his country’s fight against French colonial rule in the 1950s, took over as foreign minister at 26, went into exile on corruption charges and then returned to help lead the nation out of civil war, has died, he was 84.

Algerian state television reported his death on Friday but left no other details.

Bouteflika, who was forced to leave the presidency in 2019, led Algeria for 20 years, longer than any of his predecessors.

He had a stroke in early 2013 and spent two and a half months in a French military hospital and many months to recover.

After the battle, Bouteflika was rarely seen in public or on television, which left the impression with many that the country was ruled by his inner circle, which was suspected in many corruption scandals.

Despite his health problems, he insisted on running for a fourth term in April 2014, a decision that divided the ruling elite, the military and the country’s intelligence service. Algeria’s main opposition parties refused to take part in the election, and when Bouteflika returned to power with an unlikely 81 per cent of the vote, they refused to acknowledge the result.

He still remained in power, ruled by written directive and sometimes got foreign dignitaries.

Protests broke out at the end of February 2019, when it was announced that Bouteflika would run for a fifth term in elections scheduled for April 18. Hundreds of thousands of protesters protested peacefully in central Algiers on March 1, chanting “Hello, hello, Bouteflika” and “No fifth term!” Amid news reports that he had left the country for medical tests in Geneva.

In April, the popular unrest had forced his resignation.

He was born to Algerian parents on March 2, 1937 in Oudja, Morocco, then a French protectorate, where he grew up and went to school. (His Moroccan origins were usually not mentioned in his official Algerian biography.)

At the age of 20, he joined the National Liberation Army in his revolt against Algeria’s French colonial administration and served in the so – called Border Army, which operated from Moroccan territory. He became a close assistant to the revolutionary leader Houari Boumediene.

After Algeria gained independence in 1962, Bouteflika was appointed Minister of Youth and Sports in the government of Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first elected president. He led Algerian delegations to negotiations with the French in 1963 and was appointed Foreign Minister that year.

In 1965, he was a key player in a bloodless coup led by Boumedienne, who overthrew President Ben Bella. Bouteflika remained in charge of the Foreign Ministry until Boumediene’s death in December 1978. He was a gifted and urgent foreign minister who led a policy of anti-colonialism and non-interference and made Algeria the leader of the non-aligned movement and one of the founders of the African Union. .

For a while, Bouteflika was mentioned as a potential successor to Boumedienne, until he was arrested on charges of having used millions of dollars from the Foreign Ministry’s budget for years and tried by the Court of Auditors. He decided – or was forced – to go into exile abroad for six years.

When he returned to Algeria in 1987, he returned to the Central Committee of the National Liberation Front, the political arm of the independence movement. But he remained a backstage figure for most of the 1990s, when military and intelligence figures dominated the government in the midst of Algeria’s war with Islamist insurgency.

The uprising began when the government suspended the election to avert a landslide victory of the Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, also known by its French abbreviation, FIS

Mr Bouteflika returned to the forefront when the civil war was coming to an end. When he ran for president in 1999, he found himself the only candidate left after six rivals withdrew in protest, saying the terms of the election were unfair.

As president, he promoted the concept of “national reconciliation” and introduced a de facto amnesty for all antagonists of the war, whether Islamists or the military. Both sides had been accused by human rights organizations of having committed atrocities during the war, which has estimated 200,000 Algerians dead.

Bouteflika won three more elections after that, the last in April 2014, after the constitution was changed so that he could drive without time limits. His supporters credited him with restoring peace and security to the country after a decade of devastating war, and suggested that he be the only person who could unite the country in its aftermath. Opponents blamed him for economic stagnation and increased corruption and crime when his rule was extended, and in the end they selfishly criticized his refusal to relinquish power when his health was ill.

Nevertheless, he ensured that Algeria remained an important influence on North African regional issues, cooperating discreetly with France and the United States on the strategy against terrorism in the region and helping to mediate conflicts and political instability in neighboring Mali, Libya and Tunisia.

Mr. Bouteflika was only briefly married and had no children. He leaves behind a brother, Said Bouteflika, 63, who was imprisoned after Bouteflika resigned and was convicted in 2020 for conspiring against the state and undermining the military.

Amir Jalal Zerdoumi reported from Algiers, and Carlotta Gall from Istanbul.

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