PARIS — Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been seeking treatment at a Paris hospital, generating speculation he may be more sick than officially reported, and raising the prospect of a post-Bouteflika future for the oil-rich North African country.
Algeria's official APS news agency says Bouteflika is being treated for a minor stroke at the Paris-area Val-de-Grace military hospital. The news service published a message from Bouteflika earlier this week, saying he was on the road to recovery.
Algeria's private media, along with a number of analysts, however, believe Bouteflika's condition may be more serious than what has been officially disclosed. Included among this group is Mansouria Mokhefi, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations.
"Algeria's president is an ailing president. We are told he suffered from a minor stroke, but if it was just a minor stroke, considering how Algeria is quite closed and quite secret, he would have been treated on the spot, in Algiers, secretly, privately, I would say," said Mokhefi.
Bouteflika, 76, has been widely expected to run for a fourth presidential term next year. North African expert Naoufel Brahimi el Mili does not rule this out.
Interviewed on France 24 TV, he said that while Bouteflika's health raises questions about another presidential bid, Algeria's constitution allows for it - and if he is able, the Algerian leader will not hesitate to run.
What is clear is that Bouteflika's condition has stirred up a debate about what is next for Algeria. The nation's direction long has been shaped by the country's powerful military, which also is believed to have wielded enormous influence in selecting the country's leaders, including Bouteflika. Now, even within the military, there are calls for change, according to analyst Mokhefi.
"Algeria will enter a very uncertain transition period. Very uncertain, because Algeria has been so heavy, so closed, so shut down from everything that there is no opposition…. with a program, with personalities who can suddenly come with program ideas, strategies, whatsoever," he said.
Bouteflika took power in 1999, at the tail end of a civil war that pitted Islamist extremists against the military-backed government. He promised peace and national reconciliation, and hopes were high at the start of his tenure.
Today, though, many Algerians are dissatisfied. Unemployment is high, especially among the youth. And despite the country's vast oil and gas resources, much of the population is poor.
Even the peace promised by Bouteflika has proven elusive. There are ongoing pockets of protest, and attacks by Islamist rebels - including earlier this year, at the In Amenas gas plant near the Libyan border.
"In Algeria, you have unemployment, you have civil unrest, you have many uprisings all over the country, in different regions, for different reasons, by different chunks of the population. You have huge dissatisfaction with the system. You can consider that the Algerian people are totally divorced form the political system and their leaders," said Mokhefi.
Algerian opposition parties remain weak and divided. But Mokhefi said the uncertainty surrounding Bouteflika's condition may open the door to something new in post-independence Algeria: the chance for a credible opposition and a civilian leadership to emerge.