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Algeria: Will Tebboune’s month-long hospital stay incapacite him?

By Farid Alilat

Posted on December 10, 2020 12:02

President Abdelmajid Tebboune gives a press conference in Algiers on 24 November 2019 (AP Photo/Fateh Guidoum, File)

The Algerian head of state’s imminent homecoming has brought many questions to the forefront as the future of his presidency hangs in the balance.

Updates about President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s health have been released sparingly, but are intended to reassure people. Hospitalised in Germany since 28 October, Tebboune is pushing forward with “the remainder of his recovery process” after being discharged from University Hospital Cologne, where he was being treated for COVID-19, according to a statement from the presidency dated 30 November. The statement also indicated, without elaborating further, that the Algerian head of state is set to return home in the coming days.

The latest update on the 75-year-old Tebboune’s hospitalisation comes as rumours about his deteriorating health condition have been rampant. More than a month after he was admitted to the Cologne hospital, following a week spent in the care of Aïn Naâdja Military Hospital in Algiers, the president has not made any public appearances.

Nor have we heard a single word – except indirectly – from him or seen any images of him during his hospital stay. Surely that would clear up some of the mystery surrounding his illness and the course it is taking. On 30 November, the same day the presidency released the statement, the president’s two daughters took a special flight from Algiers to visit him in Germany.

One of Tebboune’s sons has been by his side ever since he was airlifted to this highly regarded hospital in the Rhineland.

The head of state’s last public appearance dates back to 15 October, when he had an audience at El Mouradia Palace with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Shortly thereafter, he contracted the novel coronavirus, likely after visiting his sister, who passed away on 30 October.

Algeria’s most well-guarded secret

Messaging related to the president’s recovery and imminent return should be taken with a pinch of salt, however, official communication channels have released conflicting information since his infection was first announced on Saturday, 24 October.

The lack of transparency about his actual condition and his recovery has raised doubts about his ability to fully perform his duties once he returns to El Mouradia Palace. Shrouded in mystery, Tebboune’s health condition has effectively become Algeria’s most well-guarded secret.

READ MORE Who runs Algeria while Tebboune recovers from Covid?

The circumstances are reminiscent of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s stroke in April 2013, after which he was hospitalised in Paris for 80 days before returning to Algeria.

At the time, the former Algerian president’s long road to recovery and serious after effects arising from the stroke threw into doubt his fitness to govern and highlighted the need to implement constitutional provisions regarding power vacuum situations.

Although questions surrounding Tebboune’s inability to discharge his duties are not being addressed currently, some are quietly discussing the matter, despite the announcement of his imminent return to Algeria and resumption of office. Just a few days ahead of the first anniversary of his presidential election, which fell on 12 December 2019, it is becoming increasingly clear that Tebboune’s term will be shaped by a “before” and “after” COVID-19.

Turbulent times

One has to wonder to what extent his illness has impacted his physical and mental capabilities. The sort of ordeal the Algerian president is going through has lasting effects. This is especially true given that COVID-19 can have long-term impacts, even after a patient’s recovery.

The country is in the midst of a period of turmoil brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, plummeting oil revenues and a climate of distrust among a segment of Algerians who have continued to challenge the president’s legitimacy. His second year in office will be gauged on this backdrop.

And what will Tebboune’s relationship to power be like, seeing as he has never worked up a particular appetite for the presidency? When speaking with guests prior to his illness, he reiterated that he had never asked for anything, isn’t the type of person to cling to power and intends to make Algeria’s democratic transition the centrepiece of his term.

READ MORE Algeria: Tensions mount as Tebboune and Chengriha butt heads

In the event that his health condition keeps him from continuing his presidency as normal, the Algerian president could follow in the footsteps of Liamine Zeroual, who decided to cut his term short in September 1998. As opposed to taking a page from the playbook of his predecessor, Bouteflika, whose obsession with power and privilege culminated in his ouster after Algerians took to the streets.

In stark contrast with Bouteflika’s forced departure, Zeroual, worn down by his presidential duties and facing hostility from some members of the military establishment, resigned in September 1998 and announced that an early presidential election would be held. One that Bouteflika ultimately won.

Potential transfer of power

Will Tebboune’s drive to make the democratic transition the centrepiece of his term be upended in the wake of his illness and its impact on his long-term health? Will he cut short his term and organise an orderly political transition? Such a scenario is being entertained in the corridors of power.

“The best way for the country to move forward would be for Tebboune to slowly initiate a serene, negotiated succession with the military establishment,” said a source, who asked not to be named, with direct knowledge of the presidency.

However, this kind of scenario has the potential to create more problems than solutions for the Algerian regime. For one, they would have to sort out how to organise a potential transfer of power. Then, they would have to determine who would be involved and what role the army would play, as the latter continues to constitute the backbone of the regime.

After Bouteflika’s ouster, it was indeed the army that took over the reins, led by the former deputy defence minister and chief of staff of the army, Ahmed Gaïd Salah. This goes to show that the army continues to be a key player when a crisis hits Algeria’s highest office.

READ MORE Algeria: Who’s who in President Tebboune’s growing inner circle

Nonetheless, if a political transition were to come about, it is likely that the Algerian public will not welcome the army’s reprisal of its role in state affairs. What’s more, Army Chief of Staff Saïd Chengriha, less divisive and less willing to intervene than Salah, has showed no inclination to play kingmaker.

Until the government begins addressing all their questions, the Algerian people have nothing more to go on than a health report released by the president’s physicians. And they will be keeping an eye out for his plane in the sky over Algiers.

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