Longest-serving Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika dies at 84

ALGIERS – Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who joined his country’s struggle against French colonial rule in the 1950s, became Minister of Foreign Affairs at the age of 26, went into exile for corruption and then returned to help get the country out of the civil war, died, he was 84 years old.

Algerian state television announced his death on Friday but provided no further details.

Mr Bouteflika, who was forced to step down from the presidency in 2019, ruled Algeria for 20 years, longer than any of his predecessors.

He suffered a stroke in early 2013 and spent two and a half months in a French military hospital and many more months recovering.

After the stroke, Mr Bouteflika was rarely seen in public or on television, leaving many to feel that the country was ruled by those around him, suspected of numerous corruption scandals.

Despite his health problems, he insisted on running for a fourth term in April 2014, a move that divided the country’s ruling elite, military and intelligence apparatus. Algeria’s main opposition parties refused to participate in the elections, and when Mr. Bouteflika was returned to power with an unlikely 81% of the vote, they refused to recognize the result.

He remained in power, however, governing by written directive and occasionally hosting foreign dignitaries.

Protests erupted at the end of February 2019, when it was announced that Mr. Bouteflika would run for a fifth term in the elections scheduled for April 18. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demonstrated peacefully in central Algiers on March 1, chanting “Bye, bye, Bouteflika” and “No fifth mandate!” amid reports he had left the country for medical tests in Geneva.

In April, popular unrest forced his resignation.

Mr. Bouteflika was born to Algerian parents on March 2, 1937, in Oujda, Morocco, then a French protectorate, where he grew up and attended school. (His Moroccan beginnings were generally not mentioned in his official Algerian biography.)

At the age of 20, he joined the National Liberation Army in its insurgency against the French colonial administration in Algeria 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’s independence in 1962, Mr. Bouteflika was appointed Minister of Youth and Sports in the government of Ahmed Ben Bella, the first elected president of Algeria. He led Algerian delegations to negotiations with the French in 1963 and was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs that year.

In 1965 he was a major player in a bloodless coup led by Mr. Boumedienne that overthrew President Ben Bella. Mr. Bouteflika remained in charge of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until the death of Mr. Boumediene in December 1978. Talented and dashing Foreign Minister, he pursued a policy of anti-colonialism and non-interference and made Algeria a leader of the non-aligned movement and a founding member of the African Union.

For a while, Mr. Bouteflika was mentioned as a potential successor to Mr. Boumedienne. That changed when he was arrested for embezzling millions of dollars from the Foreign Ministry’s budget over the years and ruled by the Court of Auditors. He decided – or was forced – to go into exile abroad for six years.

Back in Algeria in 1987, he joined the Central Committee of the National Liberation Front, the political arm of the independence movement. But he remained a behind-the-scenes figure for much of the 1990s, when military and intelligence figures dominated the government amid war between Algeria and Islamist insurgents.

The uprising began when the government aborted the elections to avoid a landslide victory for the Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, also known by its French abbreviation, FIS

Mr. Bouteflika returned to center stage as the civil war drew to a close. Running for the presidency in 1999, he found himself the only candidate remaining after the withdrawal of six rivals in protest, saying the conditions under which the election was held were unfair.

As president, he promoted the concept of “national reconciliation”, imposing a de facto amnesty on all antagonists of the war, whether Islamist or military. Both sides had been accused by human rights organizations of committing atrocities during the war, which left some 200,000 Algerians dead.

Mr Bouteflika won three more elections after that, the last in April 2014, after Algeria’s constitution was amended to allow him to run without a term limit. His supporters gave him credit for restoring peace and security to the country after a decade of ruinous warfare and suggested that he was the only person capable of uniting the country overnight. Opponents blamed him for economic stagnation and increased corruption and cronyism as his reign lengthened; in the end, they criticized as selfish his refusal to cede power as his health declined.

Nonetheless, he ensured that Algeria remained an important influence in North African regional affairs. He has quietly cooperated with France and the United States on counterterrorism strategy in the region, and has helped mediate conflicts and political instability in neighboring states of Mali, Libya and Tunisia.

Mr. Bouteflika was only briefly married and had no children. He is survived by a brother, Saïd, who was imprisoned after the resignation of Mr. Bouteflika and sentenced in 2020 for conspiracy against the state and attacking the army.

Amir Jalal Zerdoumi brought back from Algiers, and Carlotta Gall from Istanbul.

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