Ailing Algerian president hospitalized in France

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A file picture taken on December 11, 2011 shows Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika waiting to greet the Mauritanian president upon his arrival in Algiers. AFP / Farouk Batiche

Published Saturday, November 15, 2014

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 77, who has been plagued by ill health since suffering a "mini-stroke" last year, has been hospitalized again in France, a French government source told AFP on Friday.

The clinic in the southern city of Grenoble did not offer a reason for the hospitalization nor give an update on his condition.

The Algerian presidency did not confirm the report, but said it would release a statement later on Friday. Bouteflika has hardly been seen in public since his re-election in April.

According to the regional newspaper Le Dauphine Libéré, Bouteflika was admitted in the cardiology unit of a private clinic called the Alembert. It said the entire floor had been booked to ensure security.

About 35 anti-riot police were deployed in and around the hospital and cordoned off the street.

A police source said Bouteflika discreetly flew into Grenoble on Thursday.

Bouteflika is a war veteran who became Algeria's youngest minister at the age of 25 and has ruled the country since 1999.

As early as 2005, he was hospitalized in Paris after suffering an intestinal hemorrhage and has never fully recovered.

Bouteflika spent 80 days being treated in Paris for the mini-stroke in 2013. He returned to Algiers looking frail in a wheelchair in July of that year and was not seen in public for months. He traveled back to Paris for more minor treatments in January.

Rare public appearances

He has been seen only on rare occasions since. In a break from tradition, he failed to appear in public for Eid al-Adha prayers marking the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca last month.

On November 1, he made another appearance, visiting a cemetery housing the remains of Algeria's independence war heroes in an Algiers suburb. He came in a wheelchair.

One of the few surviving veterans of the war of independence against France, Bouteflika came to power after helping to end the country's devastating civil war in the 1990s.

Amendments to the constitution in 2008 cleared the way for him to run for office indefinitely. He has since taken steps to prevent future presidents from holding the presidency for more than two terms.

Bouteflika did not even campaign for re-election and voted from a wheelchair, but still won 81 percent of April's vote, amid accusations of widespread fraud by his political opponents. Bouteflika had previously won 75.4 percent of votes in 1999, 85 percent in 2004 and 90.2 percent in 2009.

In addition to health concerns, his rule has been dogged by corruption scandals implicating members of his inner circle.

His decision to seek a fourth mandate after 15 years in power sparked both derision and criticism from those who questioned his ability to rule after the mini-stroke.

'Not three-quarters a president'

Bouteflika has never freed himself from the pervasive control of the military, whose intelligence heads have dominated politics since independence.

"I'm not three-quarters of a president," he said after being first elected in 1999, addressing critics who saw him as another puppet of the military.

The army and the DRS intelligence agency are still widely considered to be the real power in Algeria.

Bouteflika was born in Morocco on March 2, 1937 to a family from western Algeria. In 1956, he joined the National Liberation Front (FLN) in its struggle against France.

At just 25, he became minister of sport and tourism under Algeria's first president, Ahmed Ben Bella.

From 1963 until 1979 he was foreign minister.

A dapper figure known for his three-piece suit even in baking Saharan conditions, Bouteflika is credited by many for having a role in ending the civil war that killed at least 150,000 people.

The military-backed government's decision to cancel elections in 1991, which an Islamist party had been poised to win, sparked the decade of bloodletting.

Bouteflika proposed an amnesty for rebels who laid down their arms and twice secured public endorsement for "national reconciliation" through referendums.

The 2007 death of General Smain Lamari, a close ally of the shadowy intelligence chief Mohammed "Tawfik" Mediene, the powerful hidden force in Algerian politics, was thought to further strengthen Bouteflika's hand.

But he never succeeded in neutralizing Mediene, despite steps to emasculate the military intelligence agency in 2013.

High youth unemployment

Bouteflika's third term in 2009 followed a constitutional amendment allowing him to stand again.

His supporters argue that under his stewardship public and private investment created millions of jobs and dramatically lowered unemployment.

But a lack of opportunity continues to drive many Algerians abroad as youth unemployment remains high, despite windfall oil revenues.

When uprisings erupted across the region in January 2011, Algerian security forces repressed protesters with deadly force. Demonstrators went to the streets, unhappy over the high rate of unemployment, poor living conditions, inflation, corruption and restrictions on freedom of speech.

A month later, Bouteflika met an opposition demand and lifted a 19-year state of emergency. He also granted pay rises and announced some piecemeal political reforms.

These won little opposition support, and legislative elections in May 2012 saw the FLN tighten its control of parliament.

Critics of Bouteflika still face the possibility of prosecution and incarceration for expressing opinions disparaging the president and his regime.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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