Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have old or sick rulers quite unrepresentative of the demographics of their countries. Their regimes are growing fragile and fear being ousted by force.
by Akram Belkaïd
Algeria has an aged, ailing president; Morocco, a king in poor health who is abroad much of the time; and Tunisia, a president so old and frail he spends just a few hours a day on state business. These men rule over 90 million people, 60% of them under 30 years old. Despite tough living conditions due to multiple socioeconomic problems, including an unemployment rate of 15-20%, the energy of the younger generations of these countries contrasts with the decrepitude of their leaders clinging on to power.
Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 81, suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2013 and last spoke in public in May 2014, when he was sworn in for a fourth term. Since then he has made only brief, silent appearances in his wheelchair, causing doubts about his ability to run the state. Yet this October Djamel Ould Abbes, then secretary general of the National Liberation Front (FLN), announced that Bouteflika would seek a fifth term in next April’s election. There has been no confirmation, with good reason, from Bouteflika, who lives in a special medical facility in western Algiers.
But there have been other ‘spontaneous’ expressions of support, such as September’s call for him to stand again from Algeria’s employers’ federation, the FCE. But the Mouwatana (citizenship) movement of opposition politicians, ex-FLN members and intellectuals oppose a further term, which they believe to be illegal because of presidential incapacity. They invoke article 102 of the constitution, which states: ‘If the President of the Republic, because of serious and long-lasting illness [finds it impossible] to carry out his functions, the Constitutional Council meets de jure, and after having verified the reality of the impediment … proposes, unanimously, to the Parliament to declare a state of impediment.’ The constitutional court has rejected their demand, just as it did in 2014, when Bouteflika was already incapable of campaigning.
Opaque political systems
Tunisia’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, 92, seems in better health than his Algerian counterpart. He regularly addresses the nation to demonstrate his determination to control its turbulent politics, but his official engagements are minimal; and the constant presence by his side of his son-in-law, cardiologist Moez Belkhodja, feeds rumours about his condition. This June several officials, including members of his own party, Nidaa Tounes, admitted off the record that Essebsi no longer has the physical strength to run the country nor the energy to tackle infighting in his own party. He rejects this, but refuses to publish his health reports. In a television interview in September he asserted that he had the right to stand again for president in December 2019: ‘People say I’m old. So let anyone who can match my mental abilities stand in this election.’