Abdleaziz Bouteflika, who has died aged 84, was Algeria’s longest serving president, elected in 1999 and returned to office in 2004, 2009 and 2014. He finally resigned in 2019 following mass protests in the streets at his bid for a fifth term in office.
In 2002 he brought an end to a civil war known as the “black decade”, which had resulted in the deaths of up to 200,000 people, and he also carried out reforms that challenged Algeria’s hardline generals. In 2011 he pre-empted riots in Algiers by putting a halt to the emergency rule that had been in place since 1992, and this helped protect the regime in Algeria from the fate of its neighbours during the Arab spring. Nonetheless, his early presidency saw continued violence both from the éradicateurs in the army committed to wiping out armed Islamist groups, and from militant Islamists.
Bouteflika was born in Oujda, Morocco, the son of Ahmed Bouteflika and Mansouria Ghezlaoui, who both came from the Tlemcen region of Algeria. At the age of 19 he joined the Armée de Liberation Nationale (ALN), the military wing of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) fighting for Algeria’s independence from France.
During this period Bouteflika was controller of the Wilaya V district in north-west Algeria, close to the Moroccan border, before becoming administrative secretary to Houari Boumediene, a key figure in the FLN. At independence in 1962, Bouteflika joined Boumediene and the external armies to support Ahmed Ben Bella, who would become Algeria’s first president, against the internal provisional government of the Algerian Republic. Boumediene unseated Ben Bella in 1965 to become president himself.
Bouteflika served as foreign minister from 1963 until Boumediene’s death in 1978. A bright self-made man with no university background, he relied at first on an intellectual elite but gradually steered away from this group and opted for party stalwarts. He was then forced into exile for six and a half years after the new president, Chadli Benjedid, ousted members of Boumediene’s circle. However, Bouteflika was brought back into the central committee of the FLN when new reforms backfired.
In 1992, after a first round of voting in which the Islamist party Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) overwhelmingly defeated the FLN, the army moved to prevent a second round of elections taking place. During the violence that followed, with the army fighting the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA), Bouteflika lay low until 1999, when Liamine Zéroual stepped down from the presidency.
In the new presidential elections Bouteflika won 74% of the vote, according to the official count. Having secured the presidency he initiated a referendum on his policies to offer amnesties to rebels and restore peace. The referendum was won overwhelmingly and a delicate peace has held. Since 1992, only moderate Islamist parties have been permitted to participate in elections. From 2004 to the most recent, in April 2014, elections have been accepted as reasonably free and fair.
Bouteflika was a colourful character in contrast with the austere Boumediene. In 1983 an Algerian court had convicted him of embezzling $23m from Algeria’s chancelleries. When, in 1974, he served as president of the 29th UN general assembly, he was criticised by the US for what it deemed to be politically partisan decisions. But after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, Bouteflika signed an intelligence-sharing relationship with the US.
He refused to join the Nato-led campaign against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 or to send Algerian troops to join the French-led offensive in northern Mali in January 2013. However, when Islamist militants seized the In Amenas gas plant in south-eastern Algeria in January, killing dozens of foreign oil workers, Bouteflika allowed US surveillance drones to hover overhead throughout the siege.
In 2013 he was treated at a military hospital in Paris for a stroke, which paralysed his legs and affected his speech. Despite his fragile health, and having amended the constitution in 2008 to remove the two-term limitation of the office of president, he managed, without making a single speech, to be re-elected in 2014 to a fourth term. However, he then re-amended the constitution by restoring for his successor the two-term limit of five years and adding a clause precluding the candidacy of Algerians, like himself, who have been born abroad. A colleague once said of him: “He has many friends but is the friend of nobody.”
Critics felt that Bouteflika had been merely a figurehead for a clique, which included his brother Said, since 2013. Algeria has long been governed by a military group known as Le Pouvoir (The Power), but in September 2015 the feared General Mohammad Mediène, who led the “dirty war” against the GIA and helped win Bouteflika his 2014 victory, was ousted, the clique around the now inactive president having decided to consolidate power without the general.
Bouteflika’s final public appearance came in 2017. When it was announced that he would run for a fifth term in 2019, protests erupted across the country.
A pledge not to serve a full term failed to quell public anger and, after losing the support of the then army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, Bouteflika decided not to stand. Continued protests led to his resignation in April 2019 after two decades in power.
In 1990 he married Amal Triki, but they were rarely seen together in public and later divorced.