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Algeria's Bouteflika bid begins without him
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 03 - 2014

Abdel-Malek Sellal, Algeria's premier who stepped down to lead incumbent Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika's fourth presidential bid, because he's too ill to campaign for himself, addressed his first rally Sunday with pledges of democracy.
Bouteflika, he said, promises to review the constitution should he win the 17 April presidential elections and introduce reforms that give, among other things, more powers to the elected parliament in a “participatory democracy”. This will be preceded with an inclusive dialogue between all shades of the political spectrum, Sellal explained to Bouteflika supporters who filled the cultural centre of Adrar, Algeria's second largest province in the southwest.
The three-week election campaign period kicked off Sunday.
Sellal was centred on a podium between two giant posters of Bouteflika who suffered a stroke last year that affected his already weak health that had prevented him from addressing the public in more than two years.
Earlier this month Sellal said he would campaign on Bouteflika's behalf, while dismissing concerns about his ailing health. But with mounting criticism over Bouteflika's bid for another five years in power given his medical condition, the president made a rare public appearance earlier this month to register his candidacy in at attempt to silence protests. In brief footage broadcast on Algerian TV, 77-year-old Bouteflika was seen only seated and managed a few words in a faint whisper.
In addition to appointing an interim primer minister to replace Sellal, Bouteflika installed two ex-premiers, heavyweight loyalists Abdel-Aziz Belkhadem and Ahmed Ouyehia in high-ranking positions in the presidency to boost his image. Last week, Belkhadem indirectly revealed that the stroke paralysed Bouteflika's legs, which he said “only” needed “rehabilitation”.
There's little doubt that Bouteflika who ruled Algeria since 1999 will win next month's vote, although he can barely speak or walk, and that someone else is campaigning across the nation on his behalf because he's incapable of doing so himself. With the state's support and the main political parties, he faces little challenge from his most serious contender, ex-prime minister Ali Benflis. The remaining candidates — Louisa Hanoun, head of the Worker's Party, Moussa Touati, a former soldier, Ali Fawzi Rebain, a leading human rights defender and head of the opposition El-Mustaqbal Front, and Abdel-Aziz Belaid have little or no weight within the country's already weak opposition. With the exception of Belaid, all the contenders are former presidential candidates who are intent on replaying the same role in an election with foregone results.
Here is an authoritarian leader of 15 years, a veteran of Algeria's war of independence from French occupation whose backing by the state's powerful military institution in 1999 installed him in power, which he consolidated over the years. Easily a winner in every single election since, Bouteflika is credited by his supporters for ending the civil war of the 1990s and bringing economic stability to the North African oil rich country. But the backlash caused by his presidential bid, which on the surface centres on his physical and mental ability to function as president for another five years, is fundamentally about Algeria's post-independence power structure.
Frail and power hungry Bouteflika might be the obvious target of contempt, but even if he steps down, Algeria remains a state controlled by the military junta and their associates, primarily in the ruling National Liberation Party (FLN) and elsewhere. Even the most vocal critics of the regime are incapable of challenging this and instead either pillory Bouteflika or, like his rival Benflis, himself a former FLN leader, call for reform from within the system, not against it.
The latter discourse has been echoed by Liamine Zeroual, former president of Algeria from 1994 to 1999, who broke his years old silence last week in a public letter commenting on the elections, where he criticised Bouteflika's amendments to the constitution in 2008 to allow him to run indefinitely. The country, he said, is in need for national consensus and to consider the next presidential term a transitional period towards reform.
Mauloud Hamrouche an ex-prime minister and former leading member of the ruling FLN who is considered a respected reformist, has also come out in support of this but in bolder language more critical of the state. In interview with the independent French daily Al-Watan, Hamrouche said the political system has reached its limits and is incapable of controlling in cohesion, “because it no longer carries the national project.” The existing authoritarian rule must be replaced with a “full open and democratic system,” said Hamrouche, himself a former presidential candidate.
Before Bouteflika officially declared his intention to run for a fourth term speculation was rife about the future of Algeria's top job, which revealed glimpses of a power struggle between the ruling circle which went public: the presidency, the powerful intelligence DRS (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité) and within the FLN itself. Indeed Botueflika's candidacy put an end to this — for now — because his continuation perpetuates the status quo.
The country's bloody civil war of the 1990s still haunts Algerians who might be more sceptical of the revolutionary wave in neighbouring Arab countries and consequential turbulence, especially in Libya and Egypt. And given the weakness of the opposition — itself a by-product of the ancien regime — calls like Hamrouche's reform vision from within the system might be seem more palatable for the public.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the opposition is only united against Bouteflika's rerun, but little else. Earlier this week, opposition parties rallied thousands of supporters in the capital to protest the fourth term in a sports stadium, which roared with chants of “boycott” and “the people want the regime out”. In the same rally, members of Islamist and secular parties heckled and exchanged chants with each other in a live demonstration of the ideological divisions that dominated Algeria's political scene for two decades since the military thwarted the first real multi-party legislative elections in 1991 which the Islamists were poised to win. A bitter and bloody insurgency followed which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 and where tens of thousands forcibly disappeared.
But for such a controversial election, the first week of campaigning has been lacklustre, especially in the capital, largely due to the fact that all candidates began electioneering outside Algiers. Public protests are banned in the capital since 2001.


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