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Algeria: The Health of the President and Health of the Country

Algeria: The Health of the President and Health of the Country

Monday, 4 March, 2019 - 08:00
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
It is not unusual for a political ally or a decorated general to betray you. Or for a comrade to unsheathe his knife and stab you in the back, while he hides his real intentions with smarmy smiles. None of this unusual. Betrayal is a talent enjoyed by colleagues, “comrades” and friends. The most painful are the betrayals by the people closest to you and even your own body. Your health could betray you when you need it the most and when you need to emerge unscathed against any challenge. You need your old skills to tightly grip the complicated strings in this complex country.

The body is once again betraying its owner on the eve of his birthday (he was born in Oujda on March 2, 1937). Coincidence would have it that it would be the date for his decision to submit his candidacy for a fifth term in office. His health had forced him to fly to a Swiss medical clinic. The truth is that he did not expect his reelection decision to ignite popular protests similar to the ones witnessed in Egypt eight years ago.

Such comparisons, however, are unwarranted. His story is unlike any other. It has never occurred to him to hop on a plane and flee the people’s ire. Algeria was calm when Zine El Abidine Ben Ali jumped on a plane that transported him to exile.

His country was calm when the Libyans took to the streets to demand an end to the long rule of the colonel. It was calm when televisions broadcast the images of the colonel as he attempted to flee his captors before they killed him with unprecedented brutality. No one was concerned that Algeria could one day be torn apart like Libya and for it to carved up by power- and oil-hungry militias.

He was not concerned when he heard about Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and when he appeared old and haggard behind bars. He was not concerned that Algeria would meet the same fate as Syria or Yemen. The protests in Algeria should not be compared to those in Khartoum. During President Omar al-Bashir’s term, Sudan lost a sizable chunk of its territories and most of its oil wealth.

Algeria has a different way in experiencing peace and war and expressing calm and anger.

He finds a great difficulty in explaining the images broadcast on television. He asks himself: Who incited the youths to take to the streets? Who is pulling the strings behind the scenes? Who wants Algeria to fall into a belated Arab Spring?

He remembers. He was their age (19) when he met the National Liberation Front’s military wing’s call for the youth to join the resistance. Since then, his past became part of his country’s history. Does the smartphone generation remember that it lives in the “Country of a Million Martyrs”? Does it remember that its liberation left countless martyrs, disabled people, widows and orphans? If these events are too old for it to recall, then it must at least remember the conflict of the 1990s and all of its massacres and violence when extremism almost tore the country apart. Does it have the right to forget the name of the figure who sponsored peace and stopped the bloodshed? His name was Abdulaziz Bouteflika, whom it claims the country has grown sick of.

The protesters appear to have forgotten that Algeria, with its rival parties, needs a strong man to prevent it from falling prey to ethnic conflicts. They are deluding themselves in claiming that what is possible in Europe is possible in their country. They do not know the difference between the El Mouradia palace, Elysee Palace and 10 Downing Street. Those countries can live without a De Gaulle or a Churchill. Algeria cannot, however, live without a strongman.

They blame him for unemployment, even though it was always there. They have forgotten that the state has never wavered in launching major projects when oil prices were at their best. They keep calling for change while forgetting that the absence of a strongman will leave change vulnerable to chaos and collapse. They speak of corruption, a housing crisis, a bleak future, weak parties and ongoing hegemony.

The president gets carried away with his memories. He remembers his experience with Ahmed Ben Bella, who showed great enthusiasm, but lacked realism and experience in running affairs of state. He remembers joining the coup that deposed him. He then recalls working with Houari Boumédiène, the quiet and firm president. He definitely does not forget how he was forced into exile.

Today, all the traps and hostility cannot hide one clear truth that he holds the record number of years in office. He served as president and defense and interior minister. He played a decisive role in placing Algeria on the international map. It boasts good ties with Russia, the United States and most importantly, China, with its giant investment projects. The president knows that France is closely monitoring the developments in his country. It fears that any wide-scale unrest could lead to a massive wave of immigrants, given that Algerians are occasionally among the victims of the “boats of death” traversing the Mediterranean.

The president recalls his long life. He was foreign minister in December 1975 when an extraordinary plan landed in Algiers airport. The infamous Carlos was onboard with 11 OPEC ministers he had taken hostage from the organization’s Vienna headquarters. Colonel Moammar al-Gaddafi was behind the idea. Carlos, who worked for Wadih Haddad, had strict orders to execute the Saudi and Iranian ministers. Bouteflika, however, was firm that day, which helped ensure the release of the hostages.

He lived an eventful life. If only he would write down his memoir out of his keenness on his and the republic's health. It seems, however, that he believes that returning to the El Mouradia palace, even if for a short term, is better than writing his memoir as former president. The president has not succumbed to his health’s betrayal. In recent years, he has not hesitated in bringing to heel some of the most difficult of generals. He has not grown tired of Algeria and he believes it has not grown tired of his reelection. He is the record holder. Only the days to come will reveal the report of the president and country’s health.

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