The Public Portrait of a Gerontocrat

It is often said that the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is aging and suffering from a wide range of sicknesses. Algerians mock him as a Micky Mouse president; he is short and old and there are many videos and images on the Internet of his face pasted to a dancing baby or cartoon character. Some of his public comments have been put into satirical hip hop songs or techno jams. One is not surprised given the nature of Algerian humor and his popularity among young people (which is generally low). How has Bouteflika’s public persona as reflected in his speeches and rhetoric changed over the twelve years he has been in power? What is he like in public?

His speeches can have a goofy and demagogic feeling to them which can be amusing. Bouteflika used to complement his tiny voice with a wide range of gestures and fist pounding, which he occasionally uses nowadays. As a politician, Bouteflika was a very fine public speaker, particularly when compared to his predecessors with Colonel Chadhli Bendjedid being a good example of one of the sadder public speakers in the Maghreb (Bouteflika is not as eloquent as Morocco’s Hassan II, though, and their styles were/are drastically different for rather different audiences. He is easier to listen to in Arabic than General Gaid-Salah who sounds rather gruff and unpleasant even for a military man, no offense to military men.) He sometimes makes jokes for the camera or puts on an energetic and angry tone, waving his finger in the air, seeming to jump up and down in his seat if giving a speech form behind a desk rather than a podium.

After a decade in power and the deterioration of his health (kidney troubles, ulcers and so on) Bouteflika is far less exciting though he still makes a fair amount of public appearances for someone in his condition. Bouteflika has had a long political career. It has been generally consistent over time though there are marked changes in the last few years and these are the result of natural causes rather than rhetorical strategy per se). He does not bang his fist as much these days and he is not capable on most days it seems of raising or inflecting his voice to the extent he did even three or four years ago. Readers can judge this for themselves: compare his speech on reform from earlier this year to his early campaign speeches or the speeches he made in his earliest ones as president. Or even compare his speeches from 2009 to those from this past year. He has aged (he is 74) though he still seems to favor dark three-piece suits almost year round and over time looks like he has taken to less and less busy ties (he always favored darker, more modest colors and even more so nowadays it seems). On occasion one will see Bouteflika in public wearing traditional clothes of whatever region he is visiting, a bournous here a djabellah there and so on. He dresses like an old man and has always embraced a public presentation that made him look grandfatherly or avuncular and he does not attempt to look younger than he is by dying his hair (like Mubarak and Ben Ali did for example) or the like. He embraces his age linking it to his revolutionary credentials and his association with Houari Boumediene. Of Algeria’s presidents, Bouteflika has built the closest thing to a personality cult without quite getting there in the proper sense (as seen here) and nothing quite on the order of the Moroccan monarchy or the As’ad or Mubarak or Qadhafite sort (Algerians react poorly to such things) and in the Arab context is not especially exceptional in this way.

Below are eleven videos. Most have years with them but some do not and readers are welcome to give their estimates or clarifications. All are in Arabic and/or French, some include remarks in Kabyle (by people who are not Bouteflika). No translations but non-Arabophone and Francophone readers will be able to make observations based on body language and inflection and tone and so on. Some are long and one can get a sense of them by clicking through the video. Your blogger realizes that this is a lot of Bouteflika and it is not meant as an endorsement but these are worth looking through given his health issues and that he has been in power for twelve years and the regime he heads up has thus far withstood the Arab uprisings. What is this very short man like in public? See for yourself. 

  • A clip (beginning at 4:26) of Bouteflika’s speech at Houari Boumediene’s funeral (1978/9);
  • A television message from his first campaign (1999);
  • A speech made to students at Ouargla University during the first term (2001);
  • An interview with French television during the first term (year unknown);
  • An early speech where he brutishly attempts to sell his reconciliation plan to Algeria’s equivalent of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the families of the disappeared (year unknown);
  • A speech at Tizi Ouzou while Bouteflika ran for a third term (2009);
  • A speech at Setif from the campaign for a third term (2009);
  • A clip from a parade during the 2009 campaign where he indulges in populism, literally dancing in the street to traditional music with a little boy in the south (2009);
  • A news clip which includes remarks from Bouteflika at a press conference (2010);
  • Bouteflika’s Arab Spring’ speech from earlier this year where he announces plans for reforms (2011);
  • A clip from a speech where this blogger is uncertain of the year where Bouteflika addresses a military audience (year unknown).

6 thoughts on “The Public Portrait of a Gerontocrat

  1. Two things:
    1. On the question of eloquence you forgot to mention that Bouteflika pales in comparison Boumediene. Like him or not, Boumediene really mesmerized Algerian audiences in the 60’s and 70’s. In the eyes of older Algerians I doubt Bouteflika comes close and he probably knows it.
    2. On the cult of personality, it would be interesting to compare him again to Boumediene.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s