Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Picture: REUTERS/RAMZI BOUDINA
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Picture: REUTERS/RAMZI BOUDINA

Cairo/Rabat — Algeria’s 75-year-old leader flew to Germany last month for treatment after catching Covid-19. He hasn’t been seen in public since and barely a word on his condition reaches home.

The prolonged absence of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune is now the hot topic of political debate, supplanting a vote on constitutional reform and the rumblings of war near the country’s western border. But it’s also stirring uncomfortable echoes of veteran predecessor Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who spent months in the hospital abroad before his bid for re-election sparked mass unrest and his downfall last year.

Algerians are again in limbo as the protest-racked country faces its biggest economic challenge in decades, plotting a recovery from the pandemic and a fall in income from energy exports.

The latest update on the president’s condition came November 15, when his office said he’d completed treatment and was undergoing tests. Yet there have been no indications of a return to work for the president, even with a revised constitution and 2021 budget awaiting his sign-off. Clashes between neighbouring Morocco and Polisario, a group advocating Western Saharan independence, threaten to spiral into all-out conflict in the disputed territory.

Social media and even the pages of the nation’s tightly controlled press reflect growing concern. On Facebook, a mock-up of a missing-person poster appeals for news on an elderly gentleman last seen in mid-October — Tebboune’s most recent public appearance.

A cartoon in Liberté, a popular tabloid, showed an empty picture frame without its presidential portrait perched on a long red carpet. The implication was clear: Tebboune is missing in action.

“Why is the truth about Tebboune’s health being kept from us?” said Nabil, who works in finance in the capital, Algiers. “Why don’t they show us pictures of him in hospital?”

Things were fraught enough before Tebboune was infected. Installed via an election boycotted by the majority of the nation’s 44-million people, the long-time government insider inherited an economy bedeviled by low oil prices and a current-account deficit that’s shaping up to be worse than that in debt-defaulting Lebanon.

Authorities promoted the November 1 referendum on the constitution as addressing the demands of a leaderless, peaceful protest movement calling for the removal of the pouvoir — a military, government and business elite that’s ruled since independence from France in the 1960s.

But voters stayed away and the amendments passed on a historically low turnout, an embarrassment for Tebboune. When Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, protests may restart in earnest, creating new headaches for Algeria’s powerful army, the arbiter of political change and which persuaded Bouteflika to step aside in April 2019.

Given the precedent of Bouteflika, the constitutional court has to look into whether Tebboune is still capable of leading, Abed Charef, a prominent Algerian commentator, wrote on Facebook. Such clarity is especially needed now when the situation in Algeria “calls for an intense pace of decisionmaking,” he said.

Nabil, the finance worker, described Algerians as used to seeing their president as only a framed photo behind a desk or shop counter. “I can’t bear to be governed by a portrait again.” 

Bloomberg

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