No one quite knows who is in charge of Algeria

The ailing Abdelaziz Bouteflika may be losing his grip on power in Algeria.
The ailing Abdelaziz Bouteflika may be losing his grip on power in Algeria.
Image: Reuters/Ramzi Boudina
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Close allies of Algeria’s long serving leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika fear that a “soft coup” led by the president’s brother Said may be underway in the North African country, following a series of unusual decisions they say are out of character for the ailing president, the New York Times is reporting.

“We have this feeling that the president has been taken hostage by his direct entourage,” Lakhdar Bouregaa, a close associate of Bouteflika, told local media.

The unexplained  “retiring” of Gen. Mohamed Mediène—the country’s feared intelligence chief—in September and the imprisonment of key generals, plus the passing of restrictive media laws, have some fearing that figures other than Bouteflika are calling the shots.

“Extraconstitutional forces have seized powers, outside the Constitution, from him who is charged with the presidency,” Ali Benfils, a former prime minister who ran against Bouteflika in last year’s campaign, told the New York Times.

These forces are said to be led by Said Bouteflika, the president’s brother, who has been operating as his special advisor and is now being seen as the power behind the throne. Together with business allies, they are said to be orchestrating moves to consolidate power for a post-Bouteflika Algeria.

The health of Bouteflika, 78, has been a growing concern over the past few years. He suffered a stroke in 2013 and has been in and out of hospital ever since while increasingly disappearing from public view.

He was re-elected last year with over 81% of the votes, but was virtually absent during the campaign, appearing just once in public: on election day in a wheelchair to cast his vote.

Algeria, an oil-rich country and a key ally of the west in its effort to fight off encroaching Islamism in North Africa, has been ruled by Bouteflika since 1999. But critics worry a small clique around him has taken advantage of his absence from public view, and are now effectively running the day to day operations of the country.

“It is those forces that have taken power and manage affairs in the place of the president,” Benfils says. “If there was not a vacancy of power, you would not have that.”