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Profile: Abdelaziz Bouteflika

By Aidan Lewis
BBC News

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose political career has already spanned five decades, has won a third term in office.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers, 29 October 2008
The constitution was changed to let Abdelaziz Bouteflika seek a third term

His critics say the 72-year-old is just the latest of a long line of regional leaders determined to stay in office for life - living proof of Algeria's surrender to autocracy.

His supporters, however, claim that only he can see through a fragile transition from the conflict and chaos of the 1990s, when civil conflict tore Algeria apart.

Mr Bouteflika was first elected as president in 1999 with the backing of Algeria's powerful military.

Since then he has strengthened his reputation as a deft political operator, shoring up the presidency while pushing some heavyweight army figures to the margins.

But he has disappointed those who had hoped for lasting political reform.

Independence war

Abdelaziz Bouteflika was born on 2 March 1937 to Algerian parents living in Morocco.

Like many of independent Algeria's future elite, he won his spurs in the eight-year war of liberation against the French.

Algerians sit under a poster of Abdelaziz Bouteflika with a dove, September 2007
Mr Bouteflika had claimed credit for bringing peace to Algeria

Joining Algeria's liberation movement three years into the war in 1957, he served in his family's home region in western Algeria, among the commanders who went on to form the "Oujda clan" that played a dominant role after independence.

He then moved to the "Malian Front" in the south, earning the nom de guerre "Si Abdelkader el-Mali", before undertaking a secret mission to France in 1961 to make contact with imprisoned leaders of the liberation movement.

At independence in 1962 he became minister of youth, sports and tourism at the tender age of 26, rising to the post of foreign minister the following year under President Ahmed Ben Bella.

The late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote how Ben Bella, a passionate footballer, used to rush out to play a game with his foreign minister between political meetings.

But Mr Bouteflika went on to become the principal organiser of the bloodless coup that brought Houari Boumedienne to power.

Dandy diplomat

Under President Boumedienne, Algeria became a leading voice of the Non-Aligned Movement, lending support to a range of radical or revolutionary groups and independence movements.

While the president was reclusive, Mr Bouteflika became known as the "dandy diplomat", a well-dressed spokesman for the developing world.

By the time Mr Boumedienne unexpectedly died in 1979, he had positioned himself as one of two favourites to take over.

But he would have to wait another 20 years for the presidency.

BOUTEFLIKA TIMELINE
File photo of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Paris, 1973
1937: Born in Morocco to Algerian parents
1957: Joins independence movement
1962: Named minister for youth, sports and tourism
1963: Rises to foreign minister, aged 26
1981: Begins self-imposed exile, returning to Algeria in 1987
1999: Elected to presidency after opponents pull out on eve of poll
2004: Easily wins second term in office

Sidelined, then accused of corruption, he went into self-imposed exile in 1981, spending time in Switzerland and the Gulf.

When he returned, in 1987, the grip of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) appeared to be slipping.

He was one of 18 historic figures who signed a letter calling for democracy and political reform a year later, following a brutal crackdown on riots in Algiers.

The riots, followed by the repeal of a ban on political parties, marked a false dawn and the beginning of a painful chapter in Algerian history.

The Islamist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) rapidly gained popularity, and was poised to win parliamentary elections in 1992 when the army stepped in, sparking an insurgency.

Amid the ensuing chaos, Mr Bouteflika was offered the interim presidency in 1994 but turned it down, reportedly because he was not given power over military appointments.

It was only in 1999, as the military sought to lower its profile, that Mr Bouteflika stepped forward.

He won the presidency uncontested, as all six other candidates withdrew from the poll less than 24 hours before the vote, complaining of foul play.

Health problems

Mr Bouteflika had campaigned on his promise to bring peace to Algeria, and soon introduced the first of two reconciliation plans that granted broad amnesties to Islamist militants, while laying the blame for the conflict firmly on the insurgents.

He also charged off once more on the diplomatic trail, seeking to mend the reputation of a regime battered by accusations of major human rights abuses.

As president, he has overseen a gradual reduction in violence, and, using money from Algeria's oil and gas exports, has launched a programme currently worth some $150bn (£105bn) to rebuild the country.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika welcomes Argentinean counterpart Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to Algiers, November 2008
Mr Bouteflika has enthusiastically resumed diplomatic duties

Though his opponents again complained of fraud when Mr Bouteflika sought and won re-election in 2004, his victory did reflect genuine popularity.

But it has been far from a smooth ride.

The insurgency has been reduced to its core, but since 2006 has rebranded itself as a branch of al-Qaeda, launching a series of suicide attacks in urban areas.

There have been other types of unrest, with social, political and economic grievances spilling over into violent protests throughout Mr Bouteflika's time in office.

The president was widely criticised for his response to the most serious recent riots, which took place in the Berber region of Kabylia in 2001.

Meanwhile, many Algerians say they have not felt the effects of the country's new wealth.

And in a country where - despite Mr Boutflika's boosting of the presidency - a good deal of power still rests in the hands of a shadowy group of former generals and their associates, political jostling has continued.

The president's health has added to uncertainty.

In 2005, Mr Bouteflika was rushed to France for emergency treatment on what was described as a bleeding stomach ulcer, since when his physical condition has been a source of constant speculation.

Attempting to fight off these challenges, opponents say the president has resorted to an increasingly authoritarian style.



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