April 23, 2019

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Algerian Leader Bouteflika Resigns Under Pressure From Army

Algerian Leader Bouteflika Resigns Under Pressure From Army
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PARIS — The president of Algeria resigned Tuesday night under pressure from the army following weeks of mass protests, closing out the reign of North Africa’s longest-serving leader but not ending a political impasse in a country where the street is demanding revolutionary change.

The state news agency said that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is ailing and paralyzed and has not spoken to his countrymen in seven years, had submitted his resignation.

His departure followed quickly after a statement from the chief of staff of Algeria’s army, the traditional arbiter of political life in the country, calling for an “immediate” declaration from the constitutional council that Mr. Bouteflika was unfit for office.

Mr. Bouteflika, who was president for 20 years, had sought to prolong his rule, pushed by family members and others in Algeria’s ruling elite who sought “the preservation of their narrow personal interests,” the army chief of staff, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, said Tuesday night.

The general’s declaration was enough to force Mr. Bouteflika out. Only a day earlier, the president had said he would resign before the end of his term, April 28, but that was not quick enough for either the army or the protesters.

It was an inglorious end to a career that encompassed nearly 60 years, and some of the most treacherous politics in the Arab world, in a country that is one of the world’s major oil and gas producers and is considered a bulwark against Islamist terrorism.

The Algerian revolution of 2019, peaceful and focused in its demand for radical change, is giving pause to authoritarian neighbors from Egypt to the Gulf to Sudan who have managed to thwart the street and had hoped that this kind of revolt was behind them.

Mr. Bouteflika began as the world’s youngest foreign minister in the 1960s, as the henchman of one of Algeria’s revolutionary leaders, and he spent long years in exile after being disgraced in a financial scandal at the end of the 1970s.

He came back to politics at the behest of the country’s generals to salve the wounds of a savage civil war, becoming president in 1999 and quickly bolstering his reputation as a master maneuverer by reaching a deal with insurgent Islamists.

But in the end, hobbled by severe infirmity, manipulated by his immediate circle, and blinded — according to those who know him — by years in power, he pushed too far, seeking a fifth term in office.

That enraged a hitherto acquiescent population, which took to the streets on Feb. 22 and has not left them since.

For now, Algerians appear to be stuck with much of the vestiges of the Bouteflika power structure, even with the president stepping down.

Clearly wanting to maintain control after his initial announced departure on Sunday, Mr. Bouteflika installed a new government on Sunday night, and, ominously, promised “important decisions” before he stepped down.

The words set off alarm bells throughout the country. Algerians, well aware of their president’s reputation as a wily political operator, greeted the announcement with deep suspicion. They do not want “continuity” with any part of Mr. Bouteflika’s long regime. They want a clean start.

Then on Tuesday night, the army, anxious to declare itself in sync with the broad-based popular movement, said Mr. Bouteflika had to leave immediately.

What comes next is uncertain.

The ministers Mr. Bouteflika appointed as a parting gesture could remain in office for some months.

The protesters may want a clean break, but it is not certain that the army will go along with that, or with bypassing constitutional provisions that call for the appointment of the president of the Senate, a Bouteflika ally, as the temporary president until elections are held.

Algeria has known democracy only in fleeting interludes. The only election which clearly reflected popular sentiment was a vote for the Islamists in 1991, after which the army stepped in, canceled a second round and unleashed a brutal civil war that killed more than 100,000 people.

Yet the crowds that have clogged the streets of Algiers since Feb. 22 — remarkably peaceful, festive and determined — appear to believe that, if they are to have a democracy, the country must reconstruct everything afresh after decades of corrupt, authoritarian rule.

This is why they yell “Système dégage!or, “System, get lost!” The whole apparatus of the state with its phony legalism and its compromised nomenklatura, they insist, must go.

Like the master politician he is, Mr. Bouteflika, though barely capable of even a pained grimace, appeared to exploit the vagueness of the crowd’s demands. The president — or at least those around him — spoke of “continuity” and a “transition.”

But the army had lost patience.

On Tuesday evening the standoff between General Salah and Mr. Bouteflika’s circle sharpened as the general accused “certain individuals” of prolonging the crisis. An army statement quoted the general as wondering about “this handful of people” who have “amassed immense riches through illegal means,” a clear jab at the businessmen around Mr. Bouteflika.

He called for the “immediate” application of the constitutional provisions that deem Mr. Bouteflika unfit.

At the end, Mr. Bouteflika was “playing a kind of liar’s poker,” Abdelaziz Rahabi, one of his former ministers who is now in the opposition, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon before the president resigned. The purpose, he said: “to have guarantees for himself and his family.”

In his early days as a flamboyant, mustachioed foreign minister, Mr. Bouteflika symbolized the Third World pugnacity of the 1960s. Later, as a crafty leader, he drew a healing line underneath the shocking violence of Algeria’s 1990s civil war, at the price of a willful national amnesia.

And always Mr. Bouteflika proved himself to be a survivor.

“He’s had a reputation for being especially adroit and cunning, not a conviction politician, not someone who stood clearly for any principle,” said Hugh Roberts, an Algeria expert at Tufts University,

His tenacity was a lesson learned over a very long career. In 1965 he helped his mentor, the army colonel Houari Boumediene, overthrow the revolutionary leader Ahmed Ben Bella.

After Mr. Boumediene’s death in 1979, Mr. Bouteflika, faced charges of embezzlement and “almost went to prison,” said the Algerian political sociologist Nacer Djabi.

Mr. Bouteflika had been accused of putting foreign ministry money in Swiss bank accounts, the journalist Mohamed Benchicou reported in his book, “The Bouteflika Mystery.”

“His reputation was blackened,” said the political scientist Louisa Ait Hamadouche.

The lesson for Mr. Bouteflika and his circle: “You’ve got to stay in power, in the presidency, until the end,” Mr. Djabi said.

“He can’t reform,’’ Mr. Djabi said, ‘‘because he doesn’t believe in democracy or politics.”

His former minister, Mr. Rahabi, said Mr. Bouteflika’s obstinacy was dangerous.

“He’s got a suicidal obsession with power,” Mr. Rahabi said.

In throwing off Mr. Bouteflika in a so-far peaceful revolution, and in forcing the army to take its side, the Algerian protesters have already scored gains beyond those achieved in many countries during the Arab spring of 2011.

“It’s an entire population that is waking up after a long period of national hibernation,” said Zoubir Arous, a sociologist.



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