Mini-stroke could limit Algeria president ambition

Associated Press

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — The mini-stroke suffered by Algeria's president has cast fresh doubt on his perceived ambition to run for a fourth term next year as leader of one of Africa's largest and richest countries.

The possibility that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 76, could step down could affect the stability of this key U.S. ally in the fight against terror but might also open up its long-stagnant politics.

Bouteflika on Saturday had a brief blockage of a cerebral blood vessel known as a transient ischemic attack, which authorities said he quickly recovered from and had no lasting complications. He was sent to a military hospital in Paris for tests, however, and remained there Sunday night.

Algeria's state news agency has been uncommonly open about the president's latest health problem but insisted he will be back to work soon.

"He has not had any lasting damage and no motor or sensory function has been impaired," Rachid Bougherbal, the director of the institute of sports medicine, told the state news agency.

Such mini-strokes — known as TIAs — have symptoms of confusion and disorientation. They are quite brief but can re-occur. In a third of the cases, a full stroke can happen within a year, according to the American Stroke Association.

The mini-stroke has come during a delicate time in Bouteflika's 14-year-reign, as rumors over his poor health have proliferated and he has rarely appeared in public.

Charges of corruption have also dogged his administration. Terrorist groups, including one that carried out a massive attack on an Algerian gas field in January, are also known to be in remote desert areas along Algeria's borders.

There has also been a great deal of social unrest in this North African nation of 37 million, especially over Algeria's high unemployment rate.

Despite announcing that he would step down at the next presidential election, it is widely believed that Bouteflika wants to run for a fourth term in April 2014.

So convinced are residents of this unspoken desire of the president that there has been no talk of other candidates, only when he will make his announcement.

"This totally ends the chances of his fourth term," said Chafik Mesbah, a political analyst and former member of the military intelligence.

"This is ultimately a good thing," he added, explaining that the army and the intelligence services were increasingly upset over the rising tide of corruption.

Bouteflika's last term has seen a proliferation of corruption charges that have embroiled many of his former ministers and associates, mostly revolving around bribes paid by foreign companies to win lucrative oil or infrastructure contracts.

The charges had even reached up to the president's brother, Said Bouteflika, who had been amassing power as the leader's main adviser until he was forced to resign.

Even before the latest scare, the president's diminished health had been slowing down the pace of government, said analyst Mohammed Saidj.

"The council of ministers, which is an important institution for transmitting laws, hasn't met since December," he said. "All these absences can only be explained by one thing: his health doesn't allow him to assume the full duties of the president."

Bouteflika was elected in 1999 to a country with a devastated economy that had been savaged by years of civil war with Islamists. He is widely credited with ending the war and putting the country back on its feet, aided by soaring energy prices.

Algeria weathered the 2011 Arab Spring protests partly because of a lack of organized opposition but also because of massive sums spent on increasing subsidies and raising salaries to keep residents happy.

But as his health has declined, Bouteflika has become a shadow of his former energetic self when he was the world's youngest foreign minister in 1963 after Algeria won independence from France and became one of the faces of the non-aligned movement.

He doesn't seem to be ready, however, to let the next generation take over.

University of Algiers political professor Rachid Tlemcani said, like most authoritarian rulers, "he wishes to die in power."

But Tlemcani says Bouteflika stepping down would be a good thing for Algeria.

"I think the political game would be open, which would be really good," he said. "It can only be positive for Algeria — the game has been very closed so far."

Life on the streets of Algiers, the capital, went on as usual the day after the president's health scare. Most people seemed more focused on the country's upcoming soccer club final.

Walking through Algiers' El Biar neighborhood, Achou Slimani shrugged.

"It's normal that he fell sick, it's not the first time," he said. "He was already sick, he recovered, he came back."

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Associated Press writer Aomar Ouali contributed to this report.

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