President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who flew home Tuesday after hospitalisation in France, helped end Algeria’s civil war and contain Arab Spring protests but has never managed to fully free himself from military control.
One of the few remaining veterans of the war of independence against France, Bouteflika, 76, came to power in 1999 but in recent years his rule has been dogged by ill health and more recently by corruption scandals implicating members of his inner circle.
He had been hospitalised in Paris for around 80 days, and on Tuesday a frail-looking Bouteflika returned home after boarding an Algerian presidential jet in Le Bourget, near the French capital, on a wheelchair.
His health sparked major concern in Algeria given his central role in running the country, and has also generated intense discussion about next year’s elections now that it appears unlikely he will seek a fourth term.
Despite his illness, Bouteflika reportedly gave “detailed instructions” to Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal on how to run the country, during a hospital visit.
The man with the keys to the North African nation’s vast energy wealth, Bouteflika has always fought to roll back the power of the unelected military and intelligence leaders who have played a decisive role in politics since independence.
“I’m not three quarters of a president,” he said following his election in 1999, addressing critics who saw him as another puppet of the army chiefs.
But as one political opponent who requested anonymity put it, the secretive “pouvoir” as they are known, and the DRS intelligence agency in particular, is “the only real power in Algeria”.
The army has chosen all of Algeria’s post-independence leaders and Bouteflika is no different, as former defence minister General Khaled Nezzar confirmed in his memoirs.
With its support, he was elected in 1999 as the ruling National Liberation Front’s candidate — and as the sole contestant, after the other six withdrew charging the poll would be fraudulent.
A dapper figure known for his three-piece suit and tie even in Saharan conditions, Bouteflika is seen by many Algerians as a father figure who helped end the murderous civil war that killed at least 150,000 people from 1992.
The military-backed government’s decision to cancel elections that year which an Islamic party had been poised to win sparked a decade of appalling bloodletting, with Islamist insurgents attacking both the military and civilians amid allegations of human rights abuses by both sides.
Bouteflika proposed an amnesty for rebels who laid down their arms and twice secured public endorsement for his plans towards “national reconciliation” through referendums.
He began a third term in 2009 following a constitutional amendment allowing him to stand again.
Bouteflika argues that under his stewardship public and private investment has created millions of jobs and dramatically lowered unemployment.
When the Arab Spring erupted, five people were killed and more than 800 wounded in social unrest in Algeria in January 2011, and a month later Bouteflika acceded to an opposition demand and lifted a state of emergency in force for 19 years.
To head off further unrest he announced piecemeal political reforms, including to enhance the role of independent parties, but they won little support from the opposition.
In 2005 he underwent surgery in Paris for a bleeding stomach ulcer.
He is unmarried, and has no children.