Bouteflika resurfaces

So Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika decided to resurface [Le Monde, subscription] after weeks of rumors that he was on his deathbed. Bouteflika chose the 8pm newscast of the state TV channel on Saturday, during which he only appeared for a few minutes and looked haggard. His doctor, Messaoud Zitouni, a former minister of health, dismissed a prominent French doctor's guess-diagnostic of stomach cancer.

Nonetheless, this episode has brought to the forefront the question of presidential succession, much as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's hospitalization meant that we already live in the post-(Hosni) Mubarak era. There has to be a better way to ensure a country's stability than medical reports, though.

Meanwhile, in Israel, something similar to the Bouteflika-King Fahd-Mubarak-Hafez Al Assad-King Hassan II-King Hussein-pretty much every aging Middle Eastern dictator health crisis scenario. But, as always, our well-to-do Israeli cousins put us to shame with their slick PR. Thus the Jerusalem Post gushes:

If anyone is still worried about the stability of Israel's democracy, Sharon's minor stroke served as a reminder that we still live in an open society with a free press. In all dictatorships, and quite a few democracies, the leader's health is a matter of state-security. If he needs to be taken suddenly to hospital, it's done under a cloak of secrecy and the press are gagged. Israeli television viewers on the other hand knew that something was wrong with their prime minister when he was still being rushed into the trauma unit. For the next hour or so, no official statement was released and conflicting rumors abounded about whether Sharon had lost consciousness and how critical his condition was.

A year and a half ago, Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak was hospitalized and when his condition deteriorated flown for special treatment in Germany. For a couple of hours, traffic on the streets of Cairo was brought to a stand-still and helicopters were buzzing low in the sky. Veteran reporters observed that it seemed as if a coup d'etat was in the air. The Egyptian press was muzzled and the man on the street was convinced that Mubarak was at death's door. It took the regime a week to realize that in order to quell rumors, something drastic was needed. A film crew was sent to the German hospital and a grouchy Mubarak, used to appearing coiffed and in a well-cut suit gave and interview in a dressing gown from his hospital bedroom.

The Sharon spin-team needed only a couple of hours to return to its senses. Strategic advisor Lior Horev was already calling up reporters by ten in the evening, explaining that contrary to what analysts were saying, Sharon's minor stroke wouldn't hurt Kadmia's chances in the polls, but instead would cause an outpouring of public empathy towards Sharon. But the media coup de grace was just before midnight, when the PM himself, fresh from his MRI scan, made a quick round of personal calls to senior reporters on the big papers and TV channels, just in time to make the next morning's editions. Even the most seasoned diplomatic correspondent has trouble keeping cool under such a charm offensive.
Ah, the Israelis. Their generals are so much better at staying in power.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.