Après Bouteflika

The latest news of note is that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the long-serving president of Algeria whose death has been oft mooted in Algiers ever since his emergency transport to France last April for medical care, is actually alive and well.

Two months of wild rumors came to an end when an Algerian state television crew went to visit him at the Invalides military hospital in Paris. On June 12 it showed him in the flesh, snug in a magnificent dark bathrobe, chatting with the prime minister and army chief of staff. To prove that he was just fine, Bouteflika sat ramrod-straight on his chair and sipped coffee as he listened, tears welling in his eyes, to his lieutenants giving him the news.

An instant hit on YouTube, the footage allowed every citizen to see that the 76-year-old Algerian leader was in fact breathing and, as an announcer reverently intoned off camera, catching up on events back home. The broadcast ended with a hint of menace, however, as the announcer disclosed that Bouteflika would soon return to resume his presidential duties and quest for world peace.

Those who wanted to believe Bouteflika dead were disappointed, those who plotted against him in the interim shelved their plans, those who longed for a huge succession fight realized they’d wasted their time, and those who dreamed of a new day for their country would have to dream of something else instead.

And just you wait, Bouteflika will punish them all. He will go after everyone who declined to come out and mourn for him, who failed to organize fervent processions, to sacrifice sheep, to make offerings like in the days of the sultans.

Worrying the most right now are the propaganda minister, who failed to communicate what was going on with Bouteflika in France, and the foreign minister, who failed to interest anyone in what was happening. Both await the president’s wrath, for probably he is not a happy man: Just witness all those TV images of an ailing Nelson Mandela surrounded by loved ones and followers — a man who hasn’t been president since 1999! Even Barack Obama came around to South Africa to pay his respects. And Bouteflika?

I have no idea what Algerians were thinking during those months while their president was dying overseas all alone and sad. In fact I ceased trying to understand my people long ago. Aside from emigrating some day, it seems they’re basically not interested in much of anything. They don’t even know that there is an economic crisis raging, or that the Arab world has been swept by a democratic spring. They also have failed to notice that the Chinese have colonized their country, that Al Qaeda has occupied the Sahel and Sahara, or that their neighbor, Mali, has reverted to being a French colony.

I also don’t have a clue what’s going on behind the scenes in Algeria. But it seems like the army can’t wait until Bouteflika dies, so it has already gone into post-Bouteflika mode, cleaning the house and reshuffling the deck.

The Algerian ambassador to Paris, a Bouteflika man, has been mysteriously ejected from his post. The interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia — aka D.O.K. the Bad, who does the president’s dirty work — has disappeared without a trace. Various friends of the president, master thieves one and all, have been ordered to appear in court. And the first one to be called in was a former energy minister, Chakib Khelil, but the bird flew the coop for the United States, where he holds American citizenship and where he bought himself a ranch.

The only big man who hasn’t budged, who hasn’t uttered a peep through all this crisis, is Gen. Mohamed Médiène, head of Algeria’s secret service, the real master of Algeria.

In the meantime, the democratic-minded opposition parties have lost their leaders. The heads of the Rally for Culture and Democracy party and the Socialist Forces Front, both tenacious foes of the regime, have quit. Even among Bouteflika’s political allies, many heads have rolled.

To fill the coming vacuum, feelers are being sent out to former President Liamine Zéroual, who left office in 1999 and was succeeded by Bouteflika. But he has declined to open the door to emissaries coming to talk to him. Also being approached are Ali Benflis and Ahmed Benbitour, two former prime ministers whom Bouteflika had cut loose. Other political figures who were put out to pasture at one time or another will surely have their doorbells rung soon.

Wait, let’s not forget the Islamists. They are being consulted, too, because they play an actual role in society. Besides that, they have the backing of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Iran — and even the United States, which apparently believes that the entire Arab world ought to be governed by Islamists so long as the army does the videosurveillance, albeit under the eye of the C.I.A.

In truth, aside from businessmen, no one in the world gives a hoot about Algeria or its president. It’s understandable, really: Algeria is a sad country, complicated, and its leaders are awful. But with all the rumors flying around these days, businessmen are running scared. What’s going to happen, they ask, to all the contracts they signed with Bouteflika and his brothers, with his ministers and their friends? That said, a good businessman knows when to change horses — even in the middle of a stream.

Bouteflika was due home Monday, just before Ramadan. But no airplane has been sighted winging into Algeria. Has the worst already happened?

About the only thing Algerians wonder about is what to do whenever Bouteflika’s death is finally announced: Cry their eyes out like they did in the old days when the dictator passed on? Throw a party and cheer his successor? Do nothing? Go into hiding? Emigrate? The questions are endless.

Boualem Sansal is an Algerian novelist and essayist, and a former Algerian government official. His latest novel is Rue Darwin. This article was translated from the French by Kyle Jarrard.

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