Algiers - The silence of Algeria's ailing president since the kidnapping and beheading of a French hiker by Islamic State-inspired militants has ignited new concerns over his health and whether he's fit to rule the oil-rich North African nation - or indeed whether he's still doing so.
Since Abdelaziz Bouteflika's election to a fourth term in April, the 77-year-old leader has been almost entirely absent from public view, including during key crises such as the crash of an Air Algeria plane in July that killed 118 passengers, half of them French. He last appeared on television in August.
After the appearance of a video on Thursday showing extremists beheading hiker Herve Gourdel, who had been kidnapped just days earlier, French President Francois Hollande spoke twice with Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, rather than Bouteflika as would have been customary.
It was the same situation when extremists stormed one of Algeria's largest natural gas plants in January 2013, resulting in the death of 39 captive foreign workers. Bouteflika was again nowhere to be seen.
“Where has Bouteflika gone?” asked Soufiane Djilali, the leader of the New Generation party at a forum hosted Saturday by the newspaper Liberte. He noted how US President Barack Obama publicly gave his condolences to France at the UN General Assembly, while “our president was not even there!”
Bouteflika, who has led the country since 1999, was re-elected despite noisy claims by the opposition that he was not physically fit to rule after a stroke in 2013, followed by months of convalescing in France. He was totally absent from the election campaign and has rarely been seen since.
“Institutions are paralysed and major decisions for the future of the country are being made by people who are neither authorised nor legitimate to make them,” said Ali Benflis, Bouteflika's main opponent in the April elections when he won a fourth term in office. “Only two Cabinet meetings since April is not normal.”
Concerns over Bouteflika's health began during his second term in 2005 when he entered the Val de Grace military hospital in Paris for a bleeding ulcer amid much secrecy. Numerous hospitalisations and medical visits followed, most rarely reported. In April 2013, the president had a stroke that sent him back to the Val de Grace hospital for months.
Power in Algeria is concentrated in the hands of the president, who rules in an uneasy consensus with top military, intelligence and party officials. He has no obvious successor and there are fears that his death could ignite a struggle for control among the elites.
Algeria's Constitutional Council can declare the president unfit to rule, but it must be ratified by two-thirds of the parliament. The president of the Senate would then take over for 45 days until new elections are held.
In practice, though, close Bouteflika associates in key positions would prevent any kind of impeachment vote and instead, any succession would be decided behind closed doors by top generals and party leaders.
The questions over the country's powerful president come at a serious time as Algeria is at the forefront in the fight against extremist Islamist groups in the deserts to the south as well as in neighbouring Tunisia. It is also a key player in attempts to get the warring parties in both Libya and Mali to lay down their weapons and talk.
There is a great deal of speculation in Algeria that Bouteflika may not even be in the country.
“President Bouteflika was conspicuously silent when the country suffered a terrorist attack against one of the pillars of the economy because he was secretly abroad (in January 2013),” said Nourredine Grime, a political analyst with ties to the opposition. “Today, with the assassination of a French tourist, he is also not speaking. I am certain it is because he is abroad again, but his entourage won't admit it.”
Government officials have repeatedly maintained that Bouteflika is in perfect health, despite his lack of public appearances, closely following events in the country.
“The president is working day and night and the institutions of the country are functioning normally,” Transportation Minister Amar Ghoul said over the weekend. “I have personally witnessed what he does every day and this unfounded criticism is unhelpful to Algeria.” - Sapa-AP