A coffee break is an ideal meeting time for someone as quietly frenetic as Frannie Léautier. At the end of a long day of her virtual meetings ... in several different time zones, we connect via the ubiquitous Zoom, sipping our East African coffee as we work through my lengthy roster of questions.
Prudence, caution, tact, hesitation, panic and optimism: never have these words been so often heard inside the walls of El Mouradia Palace and the Tagarins, where the Ministry of Defence is housed, since it was announced that President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had been infected with COVID-19.
Nearly two weeks after he was airlifted from Aïn Naâdja Military Hospital to the University Hospital Cologne in Germany, the Algerian president’s actual health condition is shrouded in total secrecy. Without a full medical update or images showing Tebboune at hospital, public opinion is left to make sense of the little communication there is.
The announcements made thus far boil down to a few obscure sentences meant to be reassuring: the president continues to be treated in a specialised hospital in Germany and the medical team there assures that he is responding to the treatment and that his health condition is gradually improving.
This is the sort of message delivered by the president’s adviser, Abdelhafid Allahoum: “The president is in good health!” he said two days before the authorities officially admitted, on Tuesday, 3 November, that Tebboune had been infected with COVID-19.
In an attempt to further reassure the Algerian populace, the authorities orchestrated a publicity stunt involving the head of state’s young wife.
On Sunday, 1 November, the first lady, who hadn’t made any public appearances until that time, was seen carrying out her electoral duty of voting in the constitutional referendum in a polling station in Algiers. The intended message: Tebboune’s health condition shouldn’t be a cause for concern since his wife isn’t infected, is in good health and doesn’t show any signs of being downcast and overwhelmed by her husband’s ordeal.
This optimistic, reassuring narrative is also expressed by sources – who asked to not be named – close to the presidential orbit in Algiers. “The moment of panic has passed,” said one such source. “His health is improving and he could return to Algeria soon.”
An adviser to the president exhibited the same restraint: “The news is reassuring and the president should be out of his hospital bed in Germany in the coming days.”
To persuade the public that Tebboune’s COVID-19 infection will soon be nothing but an unpleasant memory, they need to hear something more substantial than these terse messages and encouraging words. Up until the statement made on Tuesday, 3 November, the Algerian president’s state of health wasn’t reassuring.
Transported from his home on Thursday, 22 October after suffering initial complications due to his illness, the president was admitted to Aïn Naâdja Military Hospital, where he stayed seven days before his medical team decided to have him hospitalised in a foreign country.
The choice of University Hospital Cologne, one of Europe’s top-ranked hospitals, says a lot about the seriousness of his condition. According to sources in Algiers, the intubated patient was airlifted to the hospital facility in Germany.
“Serious”, “concerning” and “worrying” have often been used to describe the course of his illness. “He is in stable condition,” said a hospital source regarding the health status of the president, who will celebrate his 75th birthday on 17 November.
Panic and alarm
“The period of panic and alarm in the first days is behind us,” said a member of Tebboune’s entourage. Once again, the remarks oozed prudence and caution.
The president’s airlifting to Germany on 28 October, four days ahead of a referendum on Algeria’s new Constitution, brought back memories of the dark days of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 80-day hospitalisation in France at Val-de-Grâce and eventually Invalides, to treat the stroke he had in April 2013.
Concerns surrounding Tebboune’s condition are especially warranted and relevant since he is 75 years old, a heavy smoker and has a reputation for not living the healthiest lifestyle.
The lack of transparency about his actual condition, the course of his illness, his expected return date to Algeria and recovery period are clearly reminiscent of Bouteflika’s stroke. What’s more, it raises questions about Tebboune’s ability to fully perform his duties.
Out of modesty, prudence or caution, these questions have yet to be addressed publicly. If the president’s hospitalisation were to be extended or if his health condition were to deteriorate, these questions would inevitably be dealt with in the public arena. Who is managing the country’s business until Tebboune’s return?
At El Mouradia Palace, the Cologne patient is aided by the secretary general of the presidency and his chief of staff, as well as by Boualem Boualem, his legal and judicial affairs adviser. With very close ties to Tebboune, he is a key player in the presidential apparatus.
The president’s right-hand men
Tebboune is also backed by Abdelhafid Allahoum, a loyalist among loyalists. As it happens, he is the very same person who gave an update on the head of state on Sunday, 1 November. Communication is being handled by another loyalist and close aide, Kamel Sidi Said, whose influence has grown since the absence of Mohand Said Belaid, presidential adviser and spokesperson. Following a stroke, he has been hospitalised since the end of September in France.
To be sure, some presidential aides have come down with COVID-19, but there hasn’t been a wave of panic, alarm or despondency inside the palace walls. “Everything is proceeding with calm,” said one of the president’s advisers.
The end of Tebboune’s hospitalisation is expected to quell concerns and dispel questions and suppositions as to his fitness to handle the country’s business amid a most unfavourable political, social and economic backdrop.
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First, the outcome of the constitutional referendum has weakened the head of state’s position. To be sure, the text was adopted, but the abstention rate, approaching almost 77%, smacks of a public repudiation.
The coronavirus pandemic has become another complicating factor, especially with Algeria experiencing a second wave that has led Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad to threaten to take even more draconian measures to stem the growing caseload of infections. Another round of general lockdowns in several regions around the country hasn’t been ruled out.
Even against this gloomy and frankly off-putting backdrop, Tebboune’s return to the office could quiet rumours, speculation and fake news. His last public appearance dates back to 15 October, i.e., 20 days ago. Twenty days that have rattled the Tebboune presidency.
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