Sitting lifelessly with a skeletal, vacant gaze next to French Prime Minster Manuel Valls, Algerian President AbdelAziz Bouteflika looks painfully out of place; like a corpse kept alive artificially. This is no exaggeration: the uncomfortable image of Bouteflika looking so woeful next to a comfortable and healthy Valls has shocked Algeria and caused a wave of controversy after the French politician shared the image on Twitter following his recent visit to Algiers. The stark contrast presented by the picture is a difficult reality to accept and has left many questioning Valls’s intention behind sharing an image of a president who should be confined to a sick bed and not managing the national affairs of 40 million people.
However, this is not the first image of its kind to show Bouteflika in a less than respectable light; in February the Russians posted a video of a meeting between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Algerian president. The pitiful video, like the photograph, shows the president gripping his chair for support, inaudible and unable to look in the direction of Lavrov as he speaks. Unlike the photograph, however, it failed to arouse any adequate response or create enough of a political storm to deter Bouteflika from continuing to attend to his official duties. The image Tweeted from a French minister’s account, however, goes beyond a 140-character routine statement; for Algerians, it’s a painful reminder of historic humiliation by colonial France.
What Valls intended by sharing the picture should remain secondary to the uncomfortable but obvious reality that Algerians must face; their ailing president has not been in any fit condition to represent Algeria for many years. The fact that an image has been able to stir up such national outrage over what should be common knowledge speaks volumes about a people finally recognising the vulnerability of a country masked by the face of a clearly deteriorating leader. The fact that Bouteflika flew to Switzerland for treatment shortly after Valls’s visit does not help his cause nor, indeed, disguise how public the subject of his health has rightly become.
The shock of Bouteflika’s degradation may present a Machiavellian challenge of change but it is not one without historical comparisons. Like the humiliating, racist-driven portrayal in the French press of the Bey of Algiers in 1830 after an infamous incident which saw the French ambassador slapped, Valls sits smiling whilst his counterpart looks like a condemned prisoner forced to attend by those who control him. Though this may present a mockery of the face of Algerian politics and an underlying humiliation from a former colonial power, whatever the undercurrents are, this needs to be a forceful wakeup call.
These images should ignite political change, one that would see the application of Article 102 of the Constitution for the termination of the current president’s term in “exceptional” circumstances; in this case, the state of his health. However, the repeated calls for change resonate too weakly, failing constantly to pick up any true influential currents of change. The weakness of the opposition, the military-backed authoritarianism and a largely stagnant society are all factors that have contributed to questions about Algeria’s regional and international integrity and social dysfunction.
The deepening economic crisis continues to spiral with oil prices falling for almost a year; the decreased value of the Dinar; the deep-rooted stubbornness which refuses foreign investment and maintains its resistance to external influences; and the deepening chasm of austerity measures, all make for a very bleak socio-economic picture.
Bouteflika’s senility goes beyond a pitiful image; its detrimental consequences permeate the running of institutions and of constitutional affairs. Without a semblance of activity from the Head of State, numbered audiences with foreign officials visiting Algeria and messages read by counsellors and ministers on important occasions on Bouteflika’s behalf can only go on for so long before Algerians become complicit in their own humiliation. The fact that critics of the regime draw parallels between Algeria’s current predicament and the state of the national movement at the onset of the 1940s and 50s is a woeful analysis of Algeria’s political and social development. A lack of solutions for resolving internal crises in the best interests of the Algerian people will only elicit further pressure from external actors; this is a fear that Algeria has often fought against.
A national political consensus for ordered, democratic change in restoring the capacity for the Algerian government to cope competently with internal and external geo-political pressures is a necessity. However, the ailing health of the face of its politics is simply a mask for the state of society; the Algerian people are truly stuck in the pride of their country’s martyrs and strong history of resistance but are unable to inject any of its lessons into their own battles today.
The pride of national heroes whose images adorn schools, streets and institutions have long moulded Algerian identity but the lack of obvious effort in continuing the fight for pressing social and political change is a poor price to pay for such a bloody sacrifice. If the same fervour that Algerians bring so passionately to football matches and national representation was injected regularly where it is truly needed we would be looking at a very different socio-political makeup. As it stands, words of criticism and complaints generate much conversation but fail time and again to drive the majority to continue in the spirit that their national heroes fought so hard to create. The anger that is reaching a very dangerous boiling point in frustrated youths unable to organise their struggling cause can only be channelled negatively. The Kabylia separatist movement, in fronting the struggle with their own resistance for autonomy, have their protests led by youths whose marginalisation can only be expressed through riots and protests. This marginalisation, however, cannot be the sole engine of political change; it reflects weakened social movements and the inaction of political parties. Recognising Algeria’s countless issues is one thing but the weakened drive of a people clearly relinquishing their rights for socio-political stagnation is a direct contradiction of their proud history and the deep loss that has carried its ramifications to the modern day.
A utopian view of a revolution, that mirrors that of 1954, to shake up a nation radically is pointless when it comes to the mind-set of a people forced into temporal satisfaction when little changes like Constitutional reforms are implemented to suit the moral conscience of the governing authority. Unless demands driven by the minority remain solely within the ignorant sphere of the majority, choosing orderly chaos to revolutionary anarchy, humiliation by way of a picture will only be the tip of the iceberg. If Algerians are waiting for the demise of their leader to be the signal needed to move finally beyond empty words, then the anarchy they so rightfully fear will be the violent awakening they have been attempting to resist since the civil war of the 1990s. If they can implement what their glorious history has taught them, before waiting for the inevitable chaotic instability to crash down on their heads, they stand a chance of impeding national wounds that haunt their historic conscience. Until then, though, images of vulnerability, of outdated management and pitiful representation will tarnish a country whose sole glory remains cemented in its dusty, history books.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.