Algeria prepared on Sunday to bury Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the North African country’s longest-serving president, at a cemetery for its independence heroes but without the ceremony accorded to leaders who died before him.
Bouteflika passed away on Friday aged 84, having lived as a recluse since he was forced from power more than two years ago.
The veteran strongman quit office in April 2019 after the military abandoned him following weeks of street protests sparked by his bid to run for a fifth presidential term.
He had risen to power in 1999 on a wave of popular support as his amnesty offer to Islamist militants helped bring an end to a decade-long civil war.
Without fanfare, in contrast with previous presidential deaths, state television announced that Bouteflika would be laid to rest at El-Alia cemetery, east of Algiers, where his predecessors and other independence fighters are buried.
The People’s Palace, where other presidents had lain in state, appeared to have been prepared to display his remains before the interment. However, the lying-in-state was cancelled, according to sources.
Only journalists from Algerian national public media have been given access to the funeral, and the official mourning period will last only three days instead of eight.
Flags are flying at half-mast.
Private radio M said the funeral procession –with a military tank carrying Bouteflika’s body –will leave from his nursing home and travel about 12 kilometres to El-Alia.
This will be “an official funeral process with a protocol and security deployment” as is customary, the radio said.
Bouteflika’s successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune will be at the cemetery, where blue and black-uniformed security officers had gathered along with government members and foreign diplomats.
Isabelle Werenfels, a Maghreb specialist with German institute SWP, told AFP the country’s leaders are likely nervous “because there is a lot of hatred on social media surrounding the figure of Bouteflika”.
The announcement of his death triggered muted reactions in the former French colony.
Political scientist Mansour Kedidir said Bouteflika had marked the country’s history since independence in 1962 and his name “will remain engraved in the collective memory, despite his detractors”.
Others saw his two decades of rule as a time of missed opportunities.
He wanted to surpass his mentor, the country’s second president Houari Boumediene, with accomplishments including a boost to Algeria’s regional influence and “to turn the page on the black decade” of civil war which killed around 200,000 people, University of Algiers politics lecturer Louisa Dris Ait Hamadouche said.
Instead, “the institutions of the state have never been so weakened, so divided or so discredited,” she said.
On the streets of the capital Algiers, many residents told AFP the once-formidable president would not be missed.
“Bless his soul. But he doesn’t deserve any tribute because he did nothing for the country,” said Rabah, a greengrocer.
A retiree, Ali, said Bouteflika “served his country, but unfortunately, he made a big mistake” with a fourth presidential term and then by seeking a fifth when he was ill.
Ill health and protests
Dubbed “Boutef” by Algerians, he was known for wearing his trademark three-piece suit even in the stifling heat and won respect as a foreign minister in the 1970s as well as for helping foster post-civil war peace.
Algeria was largely spared the uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011, something many credited to memories of the civil war and a boost in state handouts.
But Bouteflika’s rule was marked by corruption. Despite its oil wealth, Africa’s largest nation ended up with poor infrastructure and high unemployment.
Bouteflika faced criticism from rights groups and opponents who accused him of being authoritarian.
He suffered a mini-stroke in April 2013 that affected his speech, and he was forced to use a wheelchair. Yet he decided to seek a fourth mandate anyway.
His bid in 2019 for a fifth term sparked protests that soon grew into a pro-democracy movement known as “Hirak”.
Some Bouteflika-era figures were eventually jailed but the old guard from his era still largely rules the country.