Amid growing political uncertainty in Algeria, copies of two newspapers were seized from the printers on Saturday night over reports claiming that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was in a coma.
The 76-year-old president has not been seen in public since April 17, when he attended the funeral of Ali Kafi, another of the country's aged politicians.
Bouteflika was flown to France on April 27 for medical treatment following what was said to have been a mild stroke. Ten days later a statement said his condition had "significantly improved".
However, according to the censored reports in two opposition newspapers – Djaridati and its French-language sister-paper, Mon Journal – Bouteflika was flown back to Algeria from France last Wednesday in a coma.
The papers' editor-in-chief, Hichem Aboud, is now threatened with legal action for "undermining state security, national unity, stability and the proper functioning of state institutions".
Reuters points out that "in a country run with Soviet-style secrecy, nobody is sure how sick Bouteflika is" but continues:
"The loss of Bouteflika would deprive Algeria of the last of the old guard who steered the country from independence in 1962 through civil war against Islamist insurgents in the 1990s to a period of stability funded by vast oil and gas resources.
"It would also lead to a bumpy transfer of power before presidential elections due in April 2014 at a time when Algeria's neighbours – among them Mali, Tunisia and Libya – are facing a revival of Islamist militancy in the region."
But Reuters suggests that despite the obvious difficulties Bouteflika's departure would not plunge the country into turmoil:
A paternalistic state apparatus which includes a secretive military-intelligence establishment is trusted to manage the transition by a population too scarred by the 1990s to risk a return to conflict. Algeria also has $200 billion in foreign exchange reserves to buy off protesters if needed.
"Algeria is not based on individuals; it is based on institutions," said one Algerian security expert. "Algeria will be stable, even with Bouteflika gone."
Writing for the Associated Press, Paul Schemm takes a different view. "The Arab Spring may finally be en route to Algeria," he says:
"The generation of aging politicians and generals that has run Africa's largest country for a half-century is reaching its end. Adding to the mix, Algeria's overwhelmingly young population is increasingly vocal in its demands for jobs and housing that its oil-dependent economy isn't providing ...
"In a country where the age of the average government official is the 70s, the biggest driver of political change has been the funerals, as one by one the grand figures of Algeria's revolutionary generation die off."
While many Algerians have been praying for Bouteflika's recovery, others are simply waiting for him to go. The reverence traditionally accorded to Arab leaders is certainly lacking in some quarters. At a football match last month, when a minute's silence was called in memory of the late Ali Kafi, the crowd responded by chanting "Bouteflika is next".
Although Arab leaders often go abroad for medical treatment, the decision to send Bouteflika to the famous Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris has proved controversial, stirring up complaints about the poor state of Algeria's own health services. Among them is a campaign demanding a "Val-de-Grâce hospital for all Algerians".
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 20 May 2013