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Bouteflika: The Magician and The Smokescreen

[A poster with an image of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Oran, Algeria. Image by mayanais/Flickr.] [A poster with an image of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Oran, Algeria. Image by mayanais/Flickr.]

The President of the Popular Algerian Republic left the country on 27 April 2013 to be hospitalized in Paris at Val-de-Grâce, following a non-fatal stroke. Since then, Bouteflika’s absence has provoked an increasing anxiety. The French press has reported on the worsening of his health, which was subsequently printed in various Algerian newspapers. Despite Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal's denial of these reports, the uncertainties regarding his succession (which appears increasingly imminent) are growing. Most significantly, the general fear of destabilization in the country heighten these worries.

Yet, in the issue of El Moudjahid on 19 May, the Minister of Urban Planning and the Environment, Amara Benyounès, reaffirmed the unconditional support of his party (the Popular Algerian Movement, or Mouvement Populaire Algérien) for Bouteflika’s fourth mandate. In the same issue of this pro-government paper, the Minister of Transportation, Amar Ghûl (who is known to be close to Bouteflika), warned the Algerian people of possible attempts to destabilize the country. Thus, a grotesque situation—a man whom could be living or dead and yet remains the probable candidate for his own succession—is justified in the name of conspiracy theories involving various foreign powers (notably Europe and Qatar) aimed at unleashing an Algerian “Arab winter.”

In fact, the departure of Bouteflika underlines the political void and the uncertainty surrounding the current situation in Algeria. Between the fear of an uncontrolled transition and the grotesque caricature of this political spectacle, we find an absence that is rich in significance. 

Bouteflika: Man of Peace and the Dignified Son of Algeria

If Bouteflika’s life is so precious, it is first and foremost because he embodies the return to peace after the so-called “black decade,” the civil war of the 1990s. Moreover, his policy of “national reconciliation” has largely profited from the accomplishments of his predecessor Liamine Zeroual (1995–1999). It was under the presidency of Zeroul that the military victory against the Islamic guerillas was won. In addition, it was due to his initiative that the policy of rahma (clemency) was set in motion, allowing for the reintegration of ex-terrorists into the national community. Those who critique Bouteflika often note that he refused the post of president when it was offered to him in 1994 (they ungenerously claim that he was following the advice of his mother). Nevertheless, it is undeniable that it was Bouteflika who completed the logic of the erasure of the black decade from popular memory—firstly in his call for a referendum on the Civil Concord (concorde civile) in 1999, and secondly, by pushing for the adoption of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, which was applied in February 2006.

But Bouteflika is not only a man who represents a return to peace. He is also a symbol of the reconciliation of the Algerian regime with its international partners and its subsequent economic recovery. A man of international importance, his rule has corresponded with the improvement of Algeria’s relationship with Europe and the United States, witnessing a decrease in unemployment (helped with a change in the methods of calculation) and a return to economic growth. Here again, we should not forget that these improvements are inseparable from an economic liberalization that has primarily profited foreign capital and the business interests of the regime. The attempts to privatize hydrocarbons have been particularly unpopular in this regard. At the same time, if the political and economic situation is far from satisfying, demonstrated through various social movements' riots and protests, the relative improvement has been credited to Bouteflika.

This claim serves to sanctify the official discourse regarding the President, who was already the sole figure able to counter the pervasive discrediting of the ruling elite, something he has managed through the deployment of an ever-increasing paternalism. As the only individual who is acceptable to the regime, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has inspired numerous hagiographic works by sycophants,[[i]] and he has also been the target of various critiques.[[ii]]  But more than anything, he has become a symbol for the rejection of chaos, the primacy of economic growth, and the affirmation of popular sovereignty. Preceding his re-election for a third mandate, an editorialist for the daily paper L’Expression congratulated him in these terms: “The citizens had made the choice of stability and continuity, notably the return of peace and the security. A change of direction would be a jump into the unknown”[[iii]]. 

The recent hospitalization of the Chief of State certainly points to such a jump. Ironically, Bouteflika’s chronic physical weakness means that he has now become a symbol of the fragility—real or imagined—of the return of the concord.

The Mysteries of a Distressing Absence

The precarity of Bouteflika’s health, which has steadily worsened over time, is well known in Algeria. Moreover, at a moment of heightened political contestation on the heels of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in 2011, certain members of the opposition asked to hold elections due to the illness of the president who had been re-elected two years earlier. In fact, the President had already been hospitalized at Val-de-Grâce in November of 2005 for a stomach ulcer that was later revealed to be cancer. The following year, he was again received by the military Parisian hospital in what was officially stated to be a regular check-up.

Here we see a postcolonial paradox: the most prestigious living representative of the revolutionary family did not hesitate to benefit from the French medical system, while there is robust popular criticism of its Algerian equivalent. The degeneration of the conditions of care in Algeria has lead to a healthcare professionals strike, as well as a popular movement demanding “Le Val-de-Grâce pour tous” (Val-de-Grâce for all). The latter demanded an amelioration of the cancer treatment available for Algerians who do not happen to be the President of the Republic. 

Bouteflika’s hospitalizations at Val-de-Grâce have unsurprisingly aroused rumors; this military hospital is known to be a place where the powerful go to be diagnosed and cured, but also to die. Often the choice of this hospital responds more to political necessities than to health concerns. This was the case, for example, when Yasser Arafat checked into Val-de-Grâce and passed away in November 2004. From this perspective, one should not overlook the fact that Bouteflika’s choice of hospital reflects a need to protect him from information leaks that adversaires in the regime could use against him—most notably the military hierarchy and the security services.

I certainly do not wish to invoke the cliché of the exceptionally fragmented, manipulating, and mysterious character of the Algerian regime. Not only is the dominance of this image used to justify the alleged impossibility of explaining the civil war (often referred to as a “tragedy”—i.e. as something that defies rational comprehension), but it has also led to the persistence of Orientalist narratives among national and international observers. Yet one is forced to admit that the spectacle of the President’s hospitalization reinforces both the political uncertainly and the feeling that something is afoot in the circles of power.

The anxiety the statements of individuals who are solicited to offer commentary on Bouteflika's death have provoked further easperates this feeling, never mind that they often lack precise information. In this respect, the media statements of Benjamin Stora are understandable—after all, French media has designated him as the public intellectual to whom every question concerning Algeria should be addressed. Regarding Bouteflika’s illness, his prudent but ambiguous position was that “it is very difficult to say if [he] is still alive.” Interestingly, this statement of a major commentator in France was then transformed and redeployed in Algeria, yet the tone became even more alarmist: “Bouteflika might have passed away according to Benjamin Stora.” 

What response is expected in reaction to the comments of Jewish pied-noir singer Enrico Macias regarding the critical state of the President’s health? What to think when a Qatari journal republishes his opinion and then is subsequently cited by a patriotic website that belongs to the son of a prominent Algerian General (Lofti Nezzar, son of Khaled)? When the “voice” of France, Jews, Qatar, and the Generals become confounded, it is not difficult to imagine how this information may feed the fantasies of an international conspiracy aiming to plunge the country into chaos. Last but not least, statements of the Prime Minister that denounce any foreign influence (la main de l’étranger) in the country echo this fear.

Consequently, the problem is not so much the secrecy surrounding the health of the President, a phenomenon that is surely not specific to Algeria, but rather the anxiety-producing diffusion of information between France and Algeria. The censure of Algerian daily papers like Djaridati and Mon journal feed the worries and conspiracy theories, which have aimed to publish information on this subject.[[iv]] To understand the consequences of the distressing absence of the President, one should note that it adds to the existing anxiety among the Algerian society, which has been exacerbated by the situation in Mali and Libya, as well as in Tunisia. The common need for "clicks" heightens the sense of sensationalism among the online-media, regardless of which side of the Mediterranean they are published. 

The Farewells of a President-Magician

Rather than endlessly speculating on the health of Bouteflika, it is certainly more interesting to look at the uncertainty surrounding his disappearance as a tangible object of analysis in its own right. The significant question is not necessary whether Bouteflika is dead or live. The issue that needs to be raised is: what does it mean that no one has reliable information about Bouteflika’s health?  Remarkably, this is not the first time that there have been uncertainties concerning Bouteflika’s health and speculations regarding his possible death. In fact, in September 2011, and again the following year at the same time, rumors spread about the probable death of the President when he repeatedly failed to appear in public. This led certain analysts to evoke the comedy of a born-trickster (truqueur-né) and depict Bouteflika as an experienced illusionist. Bouteflika, The Illusionist? The word was certainly not used in vain. 

Undoubtedly, there is something magician-like about the Algerian chief of state, particularly in his relationship with time and death. This is hardly an Algerian exception; mastering time is often a function of the supreme power in presidential regimes. More generally, Fernando Coronil has developed a convincing reflection on the magical character of the Venezuelan state.[[v]] Moreover, from a sociological perspective, recognizing the paranormal capacities of Bouteflika also speaks to the capacity of other state actors to convincingly participate in acts of social magic.

Perhaps to understand his magical power, we should begin by describing it. The intricacies of sorcery are, like the human sciences, a question of disciplinarity. In fact, Bouteflika is above all a magician who manages to manipulate time. He is capable of extending it in way that seems infinite, and also of dividing or compartmentalizing it. The President has made a past that was decidedly finished reappear (the Boumedienist myth of postcolonial emancipation). He has also managed to fade the memory of two decades of gruesome events, by starting to erase his own role in the 1980s and 1990s—claiming that he had been disgraced during the 1980s, and was allegedly absent during the 1990s (a good magician knows when to disappear). In making the distant past triumph from the recent tragedy, and taking his place in the present, Bouteflika has undoubtedly tried, and to a certain extent succeeded, to transform Algeria’s temporal reality. Moreover, his capacity to triumph from the death has consolidated his ability to stretch the past indefinitely, inseparable from the centrality of the revolutionary myth to the legitimacy of the ruling coalition—a talent worthy of the great necromancers in fantasy novels.

However, the persistent fear of chaos testifies to the fallibility of these illusions and the limited capacity of the President (and the ruling coalition) to influence reality. It is in fact the finite nature of Bouteflika that allows for the perpetuation of that which should have been finished or passed away, something which reminds us of the fragility of these illusions. More, the capacity of a gerontocracy to escape from death violently contrasts with the unlivable nature of the daily quotidian (the famous “dégoûtage of the youth). In this sense, one sees clearly that the efficiency of the magic suffers from a gap with reality, especially since the discredit of the supposed illustionsts already mark the spectacle, including the President himself. Consequently, the impression of a world immersed in absurdity is actually strengthened, feeding a set of anxieties and concerns that are widely shared. 

Algeria Will Survive Bouteflika

Regardless of what one thinks of Bouteflika, the majority of people recognize him as someone who has participated in a glorious period of Algerian history, and above all as one of the principal engineers of a return to peace and reconciliation. The problem, which I have already mentioned, is that his precarious health weakens the two key ideas behind these accomplishments: historical continuity and peaceful stability. In this context, the spectacle of his increasingly rare public appearance becomes a moment of anxiety rather than an event that might reassure the population. If we add to this the corruption of his entourage, and the tensions between him and other tendencies in the ruling coalition (notably among the military hierarchy),[[vi]] one can reasonably suggest that the continuation of Bouteflika’s presidency is not as essential to the stability of the country as it may seem. 

For several years a complaisant press, sometimes printed in Paris, has consistently affirmed the irreplaceable character of the President. For example, just after the nomination of Abdelmalek Sellal as Premier Minister in September 2012, Jeune Afrique enthusiastically “revealed” that Abdelaziz Bouteflika worked an average of fourteen hours every day.[[vii]] One rests skeptical regarding the capacity of an aging president to exert such efforts— even with the help of a maximum dose of energizing “cocktails.” In fact, despite the playacting of Abdelmalek Sellal, Amar Ghûl, and Amara Benyounès, Algeria can very well live without the President.  The evidence: the final of the Algeria Cup took place; the movement for the rights of the unemployed was channeled and reprimanded; and the German Ministry of Foreign Affaires came to Algeria to celebrate the “strengthening of cooperation” between the two countries. For now, it is business as usual. It has been one month since Bouteflika has left the country and while no one knows when he will return, Algeria has not collapsed. In this context, candidates of all stripes are preparing for the next presidential election, proof that the political vacuum is not so lethal after all. Indeed, Bouteflika serves as a smokescreen that masks the existence of a number of alternatives, starting with the host of Prime Ministers, past and present (Hamrouche, Benflis, Benbitour, Sellal, and even Ouyahia).

Finally, we should see the hospitalization of the Chief of State as part of a systemic crisis that testifies to the necessary renewal of the ruling elite despite its obsession with the status quo. While this crisis propagates uncertainty, it also demonstrates a certain truth: if the talents of the President-Magician were undoubtedly a great help to the ruling coalition, he is not indispensable to the maintenance of peace. Algeria will survive Bouteflika. In constructing his “Great Mosque” in Algiers rather than in Paris, he too seems convinced that the country that will carry on after his death.

[This article was originally published in French and translated by the Maghreb Page.]

[ii] Mohamed Benchicou, Bouteflika: une imposture algérienne (Algiers: Le Matin, 2003).

[iii] L'Expression, 11 April 2009.

[iv] The spirit of suspicion also includes the two journals that belong to Hichem Aboud, an ex-agent of the security services, which shared the information on France 24 the same evening.

[v] Fernando Coronil, The Magical State. Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[vi] Mohamed Hachemaoui, “Permanence du jeu politique en Algérie”, Politique étrangère, no. 2 (2009), 309-321.

[vii] Jeune Afrique, no. 2696, week of 9-15 September 2012, 42-45.

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