Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s long absences due to illness during the last years of his rule made him the target of jokes and fed repeated rumors about his death. So when he actually died on Sept. 17 at 84 years old, several Algerian media outlets began their obituaries by stating that, this time, it was true.
Bouteflika, who ruled for 20 years before being pushed out of power by popular protests in 2019, left behind a country in shambles. To be sure, not all of Algeria’s current woes can be attributed to him. But Bouteflika was there at the beginning—when a vibrant, newly independent nation had its fate overturned into military autocracy—and a half-century later, when he ran the ensuant regime that was unable to transform Algeria’s oil wealth into prosperity. Throughout his career, Bouteflika was both a product of his country’s ruling system and a source of its failures.
Bouteflika’s dejected rule represented the final blow to the shred of legitimacy claimed by Algeria’s opaque regime. Since Bouteflika’s fall from grace two years ago, the country’s rulers have been unable to reestablish the veneer of stability they relied on to strong-arm the system for decades. And as a new generation of Algerians take to the streets—questioning the status quo in unprecedented ways—only one thing about the future of the country is certain: It is the failures of the Bouteflika era that brought them here.
In 1956, at just 19 years of age, Bouteflika joined the National Liberation Army, the armed branch of the National Liberation Front (known by its French acronym, FLN), which fought against France, Algeria’s colonial power. Whether or not Bouteflika actually fired a single shot against the occupiers has been disputed. But this early start linked him to Houari Boumédiène, who commanded the liberation army’s external forces in Morocco and Tunisia and took Bouteflika under his wing.
After independence in 1962, Boumédiène’s forces entered Algiers and brought Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the FLN’s leaders, to power as the first president of Algeria. This was the founding moment of an illiberal regime, one that liquidated most of the historic figures of the independence movement to establish a one-party system led by the FLN. A nation freed from colonialism became immediately subject to military rule. From the start, Bouteflika was a part of it.
At just 25, Bouteflika became Ben Bella’s minister of youth and sports, and one year later, he was named foreign minister. In 1965, when Boumédiène, then serving as vice president, moved against Ben Bella in a coup, he counted on Bouteflika’s support and allegiance.
Bouteflika served as foreign minister for 16 years, until 1979. During that time, he cemented Algeria’s reputation as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Algeria became a hub for revolutionaries and independence fighters from around the world, portraying itself as a beacon of the anti-colonial struggle. In reality, it was an authoritarian regime, ruled by men who had mostly waited out the war abroad and then abandoned any commitment to political pluralism to take power on their return.
After Boumédiène died in office in 1978, Bouteflika was under consideration to become his successor. But the army opted for another candidate, Col. Chadli Bendjedid. By 1981, Bouteflika had been passed on for a promotion and was accused of embezzling millions of dollars during his time as foreign minister. He went abroad for several years, living in exile in the United Arab Emirates, France, and Switzerland, likely to avoid the possible consequences.
Back in Algeria, the country’s system of single-party military rule cracked through economic crisis and the resulting social upheaval at the end of the 1980s. In response, the ruling generals allowed other parties to compete in elections against the FLN to create a semblance of political pluralism. In reality, they still pulled the strings.
Still, Islamists organized under the Islamic Salvation Front (known by its French acronym, FIS) in a bid to reach power. After performing well in local elections in 1990, the FIS looked likely to win a plurality in the 1991 Algerian parliamentary elections. Afraid, the army canceled the election, and Algeria was subsumed by a violent conflict between state forces and armed militants. During the decade of civil war that ensued, 150,000 to 200,000 Algerians died, and thousands more were disappeared by the state.
As the conflict died down, the generals needed a president who could both claim legitimacy from the war of liberation and be accepted by the different factions within the ruling system. They called on Bouteflika. He was elected in 1999, after competing candidates backed out of the contest amid accusations of electoral rigging.
It was a familiar ploy. Since independence, le pouvoir (“the power”)—an opaque collection of army generals, secret services chiefs, and aged politicians—had chosen every president of Algeria. In the highly centralized state, this allowed the military to easily maintain its rule. But Bouteflika aimed for something different. “I don’t want to be three-quarters of a president,” he stated before securing the post.
As president, Bouteflika was credited with bringing peace to Algeria by formalizing cease-fire agreements between the army and the insurgents and passing a blanket amnesty for all involved in the civil war. In reality, he mostly attempted to force general amnesia about the civil war’s victims. In 1999, when the mother of one of the thousands of Algerians disappeared by security forces during the civil war asked about their fate, Bouteflika quickly answered, “The disappeared are not in my pocket.” The civil war and its wanton violence were to be forgotten; the mass graves that occasionally popped up across the country were hidden.
Under Bouteflika, the gravity of the civil war was used to remind Algerians that disorder brings chaos. This, coupled with generous pay rises for police officers and other civil servants and increases in subsidies for wheat, sugar, and milk, was enough to discourage massive street protests during the 2011 regional uprisings that brought down several Arab rulers.
In the two decades after independence, the Algerian regime opted for a statist economic model, complete with five-year plans and big state firms. Although some industries were privatized in the 1990s, the government never truly reduced its role: State control allowed the regime to manage economic rents. In a country so dependent on oil—today, oil revenues account for 60 percent of the Algerian government’s budget and 94 percent of its export earnings—state-owned banks were used to feed cronyism.
During his 20-year rule, Bouteflika empowered a group of oligarchs made rich by their access to state contracts, thereby bringing money into the ruling system and creating his own support base. Economic clientelism weakened the military’s grip on power, but it also caused rampant corruption: Access to Algeria’s hydrocarbon wealth became even more dependent on allegiance to the regime.
Following a 2013 stroke that left him partially paralyzed, Bouteflika’s health deteriorated. He became the absent president, perpetually abroad for medical treatment and visibly impaired on the rare occasion he did show up.
The Bouteflika years were a period of immense wealth for Algeria but not for most Algerians. In April 1999, when Bouteflika first secured the presidency, the price of oil was $13 per barrel. For years, prices kept climbing, peaking at $147 per barrel in the summer of 2008. During that time, Algeria’s billions and billions of dollars of profits were supposedly channeled into infrastructure. But if you travel the country today, it is hard to see where this money went.
By the time global oil prices collapsed in 2014, nothing had been reformed in Algeria. The economy was still dependent on exporting hydrocarbons and importing most everything else. New highways and social housing projects were built. But much was lost to corruption and mismanagement by the military establishment and oligarchy bred during the Bouteflika years.
In 2019, Algeria was already running budget deficits, its foreign exchange reserves eroding rapidly. To most Algerians, it was unclear who really ruled the country. Eternally immersed in disputes among various power factions, the regime had not agreed on a succession plan to the ailing president. So it attempted to force a fifth Bouteflika term on Algerians and keep things as they were.
The move sent millions of young people out onto the streets. Unlike their parents, they had not lived through the civil war of the 1990s and were thus immune to the regime’s claim that autocratic stability was the best Algeria could hope for. Although it initially mobilized against a fifth Bouteflika term, the nonpartisan Hirak protest movement has since become a broad and peaceful rejection of the military autocracy that has ruled the country since independence.
When the streets became too loud, the system sacrificed a part of itself to survive: In April 2019, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, who had been appointed as chief of staff of the army by Bouteflika years before, removed the president from office. State television showed a frail Bouteflika handing his resignation to the head of the constitutional council wearing a traditional djellaba robe, looking like someone who had been pulled out of bed in the middle of the night.
With Bouteflika out of the way, Hirak protesters continued to march weekly. They knew that the president was only part of a larger system and demanded elections for a constituent assembly to reform the ruling system—not another president chosen behind closed doors.
The political impasse lasted for months, until the generals forced new presidential elections in late 2019. Despite the low turnout, they resurrected another regime figure to fill the role of president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, then 74 years old, who had been a minister and prime minister under Bouteflika. Since 2019, many Algerians have refused to participate in presidential and legislative elections and referendums, ignoring the regime’s desperate attempts to achieve legitimacy.
Unable to rebuild the civilian screen that allowed it to rule Algeria from behind curtains, the army has instead leaned on a familiar playbook: branding political dissent as a plot to destabilize the country. It has blamed Morocco for the wave of summer fires that killed dozens of people and destroyed large areas in the Berber-majority region of Kabylie. Arrests of journalists, activists, and protesters have accelerated. Though COVID-19 and repression quelled protests in 2021, the country is drowning in social discontent—raising the prospects of a return to mass protests and a violent response from the state.
After spending most of the summer rationing water, Algerians are asking themselves how a country with some of the world’s largest hydrocarbons reserves can’t keep drinking water flowing from its taps. The devaluation of the dinar has increased inflation and raised the cost of living. Foreign exchange reserves have fallen from some $120 billion in 2016 to $42 billion in the first quarter of 2021.
Stuck in their disputes over power, Algeria’s military and political leaders have never allowed the country to capitalize on its resource wealth or strategic position in North Africa and the Mediterranean. And this is perhaps the biggest tragedy of Bouteflika’s reign and the regime he encapsulated: to have done so little, with so much. Generals, spies, and geriatric politicians like Bouteflika have held back Algeria for too long.
*a journalist and writer covering the Middle East and North Africa.