Let us now praise famous men. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for example. What goes on in his comatose brain? What moves in the 82-year old heart of the zombie president who – as the Algerians protesting his fifth attempt at presidential power have just discovered – will now stay on as a coffin-leader into next year. Or, who knows, the year afterwards?
But why on earth do men like Bouteflika do these things? In his case, he’s not just “clinging to power”. He is being prevented from entering the grave.
Old men forget, observed Shakespeare’s Henry V, and wartime diplomat Duff Cooper used this as the title of his memoirs. “Autumn has always been my favourite season,” he wrote. “… I love the sunlight but I cannot fear the coming of the dark.” He lived for another 11 years.
Winston Churchill was 80 when, on the morning of 23 March 1955, he was shocked to read the headline in The Guardian: “Cabinet urging premier to resign. His health said to be retarding his work.”
And yes, we are coming to Bouteflika of Algeria in just a moment. And Hosni Mubarak, who was 83 when the Arab revolution overwhelmed him in 2011, while still pleading for another seven months in power. Or the present King Salman of Saudi Arabia, 83 last year.
Or field-marshal-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is only 64 but for whom the parliament and courts are now providing him with the chance of ruling Egypt in 2030 when he will be 75, or far longer if he chooses.
Less than two years before he read that Guardian headline, Churchill had suffered a severe stroke at 10 Downing Street. His cabinet colleagues did not notice next morning, and the public were told he was merely “exhausted”. He was paralysed on one side. Thanks be to God that he did not have a hoarse voice in parliament, which might have given the game away.
Yet three months after this (second) stroke, Churchill made a triumphant speech to Margate Tories about his intention to hold a summit with the Russians – he was standing for 50 minutes and never once faltered – and the next month learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Old men did not always forget. Nor wish to depart.
“If I dug in I don’t think they could make me go,” Churchill told Lord Moran, his doctor. “But I like Anthony [Eden] so much and I have worked with him so long. And he wants to be prime minister terribly.”
And so Churchill, who had been falling asleep at cabinet meetings, departed 13 days after that painful Guardian article, leaving Eden to destroy what was left of the British empire at Suez.
Churchill resigned at 80 (he died at 90), but Bouteflika at 82 is now doing a Mubarak, postponing elections in which he will not now stand and staying on as president until the poll takes place in perhaps seven months’ time. Or in 2020. Or longer. Decrepit Churchill may have been, but Bouteflika – and let us be horribly honest here – is a corpse whose heart, quite by chance, is still beating. He does not speak. He cannot walk. His courtiers cannot tell if he understands.
Even when he was elected for a fourth time in 2014 after a lot of constitutional jiggery-pokery, Algerian cartoonists drew him as a man already in his sarcophagus. Why should Algeria’s young people have to elect a cadaver, Algerians asked, then? What an insult to the nation.
They were saying the same again this month, just after the speechless wonder returned from hospital in Geneva, a journey so profoundly secret that the aircraft were so arranged on the Swiss tarmac as to prevent cameras catching sight of the funereal plane. Yet Bouteflika has announced – no, let us be fair, it is said that he has announced – that if the massive demonstrations are not called off there will be “chaos”.
Which is exactly what Mubarak threatened in February 2011 if he was not allowed to stay in power. This week, far too late, the young Algerian protesters spotted the ruse – that by cancelling the elections in which he was standing, Bouteflika would remain in the convalescent and medical clinic at Zeralda 14 miles from Algiers with all the powers of president but without, of course, the physical faculties to exercise them.
We must be fair, of course. Bouteflika hasn’t told us specifically that he wants to stay in power. Because, of course, he cannot speak. This is a problem. At least others of his age who have notched up a brace of strokes have been able to talk – Churchill, for example.
Or Tito, who refused to allow his gangrenous leg to be amputated until it was too late, and so died just three days short of his 88th birthday.
Neither predicted “chaos” on their departure, although Suez and the break-up of Yugoslavia suggest they should have done so. Chaos, of a kind, certainly followed Mubarak’s overthrow, but only for a year of pseudo-Islamic rule after which the aforesaid Sisi – he of the potentially eternal presidency – thankfully staged a coup d’etat and imposed an even more brutal “elected” dictatorship on Egyptians than Mubarak.
Bouteflika’s other problem – aside from his speechlessness – is the sinister “pouvoir”, silent and corrupt and ruthless, who cannot find, or fear to find, a pliable “homme d’etat” to take his place. That’s why he originally said he would stand for a fifth term in the April poll, which he will not now do because the election itself has been postponed.
And ergo, the president-who-would-be-dead – or, unkind hearts say, should be dead – stays in power. No wonder Algeria’s judges joined the youth of Algiers in their demonstrations. Algeria was never a democracy. Now it has become a necrocracy.
Everyone in Algiers knows that the “chaos” of which Bouteflika allegedly spoke would not emerge in the streets of Algiers but within the “pouvoir” itself. And here, as all Algerians are aware, lurks Bouteflika’s brother Said – 21 years the younger – through whom, so it is said, all communications to the president must pass.
Shortly after Bouteflika came to power in 1999, Said made short work of two rivals. But he has around him general Ahmed Gaid Salah, surely one of the Middle East’s most sinister generals, and Said’s own good businessman friend Ali Haddad.
These are wealthy men with a coterie of friends in both the army and the millionaire-heavy merchants who have villas in Switzerland and apartments in central Paris. And they all know of the crimes beyond description to which the “pouvoir” is heir. They have the files. Men associated with the dreadful years of the 1990-98 civil war – the “eradicateur” General Toufiq, for example – have already been pushed aside with the help of Said Bouteflika.
So for the moment, Bouteflika must be kept alive. Does he wish to be? It scarcely matters. He must be kept alive until the succession is decided – through a glass darkly – by those around him.
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If there are moments of full sanity, we must assume that perhaps power still has the effect of rejuvenating those who are politically dead. But why did Mubarak hold on when millions of Egyptians demanded his removal? Why do these wretched men not retire, gently, diplomatically, in a dignified way? They surely do not fear death. Presidents attract assassins. Retired presidents do not.
What may very well account for this is the rubric of Arab presidential patriarchy, for whom the people – submissive, repressed, tortured, infantilised – are always his “children”, protected by the great and wise father-figure in the palace whom none may disobey.
But all tyrannies of this kind are haunted by the fact that the presidential father of his people ultimately wants not his people but his biographical children or family to inherit his throne. When Mubarak emotionally addressed the youth of Tahrir Square in February 2011 as “my children, my children”, they all knew that the one “child” that now mattered was Mubarak’s heir apparent: his son Gamal.
Ben Ali of Tunisia intended that his family should rule indefinitely. So do the emirs and kings of the gulf, whether or not an ambitious prince should lop off the head of a meddlesome journalist after gaining power. In Syria, the caliphate was actually anointed when the constitution was changed to allow the young Bashar al-Assad to inherit his father’s presidency. It was 11 years before the Syrian war began.
Surely in Algeria, Said must wish his brother long life. But is that why he helps to keep him alive? Or are Algerians to wait until the Bouteflikas, too, have resolved the future of power with their military and commercial courtiers before another fake election can be held and the old boy allowed to die; already so far gone, alas, that he really cannot “fear the coming of the dark”.