LONDON (Reuters) - A mystery illness suffered by Algeria’s president is cancer, not the stomach ulcer suggested by state media, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables suggest.
But U.S. embassy messages from the WikiLeaks cache of 250,000 State Department documents, independently reviewed by Reuters, say the alleged cancer is in remission and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 73, could live for several more years.
The documents also suggest the president, who was supported by the military when he was first elected head of state in 1999, has subsequently had uneasy ties with the military intelligence service, widely seen as Algeria’s top power-broker.
The disclosures come as Bouteflika steps up attempts to stop anti-government protests around the Arab world spreading to his country. He promised on February 3 to create new jobs and allow more democratic freedoms, and on February 22 his government announced it would lift a 19-year-old state of emergency.
An Egyptian-style revolt in Algeria could have far-reaching economic implications because the country is a major oil and gas exporter which is also fighting an al Qaeda insurgency.
Analysts say a popular uprising is unlikely to succeed as the state can use energy revenues to buy off most grievances.
The subject of Bouteflika’s health is rarely broached publicly by Algerian officials although it has been widely discussed by ordinary Algerians since he visited France for medical treatment in November 2005 and again in 2006.
Official media at the time said it was understood that he had suffered from a haemorrhagic stomach ulcer.
But this version was contested in a January 3, 2007 cable by then ambassador Robert Ford that discussed speculation about Bouteflika’s health stirred by his 2005 trip.
“A physician ... familiar with President Bouteflika’s health condition recently told us in strictest confidence that the president suffered from cancer -- as had been widely speculated -- but that it was currently in remission for the foreseeable future, allowing the president to fulfill his duties,” he wrote.
“If true that President Bouteflika’s cancer is in remission, it would explain the president’s confident assertion that he is not going anywhere, at least not anytime soon.”
This may refer to an acknowledgement by Bouteflika in November 2006 that he had been very ill but had made an “absolutely fabulous” recovery. He added: “I‘m a man like absolutely everyone else. It’s quite clear that if I had health problems I would have to go back home for good.”
Asked for comment, an Algerian diplomatic source said: “The President of the Republic does not suffer from cancer. This question has been raised before and categorical responses were supplied.”
Bouteflika’s health is a central factor in the stability of an oil-exporting country of 33 million emerging from a long conflict between government forces and Islamist insurgents.
Many credit him with reducing the violence. But critics say it is time for a change, arguing his rule has shown political intolerance and lack of progress on weaning the economy off reliance on oil and gas.
A cable on December 19, 2007 cited a prominent politician as saying Bouteflika suffered from “terminal stomach cancer.”
But in a January 25 2008, cable, Ford wrote that at a meeting on January 23 with Bernard Bajolet, his French counterpart, Bajolet had stated “that Bouteflika’s health is better and that he might live several more years. His improved health and activity has given him more leverage over the army, he (Bajolet) speculated.”
In March 2008 Bouteflika told Reuters: “Everyone knows I was ill and that I had to follow a serious convalescence. But now, I’ve resumed my normal activities and I don’t think that that should give rise to comments or calculations that are more or less fanciful.”
The U.S. cables suggest that Bouteflika’s health has loomed large in the political calculations of the secretive military group known as “le pouvoir,” which has dominated Algerian politics since independence from France in 1962.
A decision in 2008 by parliament to amend the constitution, allowing Bouteflika to run for a third term in office due to end in 2014, was made possible by the assent of senior military officers, political analysts have said.
In a cable dated December 19, 2007, Ford reported a political contact as saying intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene, “widely viewed as the key figure in ensuring regime control and survival,” had acknowledged that “all was not well with the health of Bouteflika and Algeria writ large.”
However, Mediene said he needed some kind of reassurance that any political alternative “would be viable” and, by implication, would not destabilize the country, the cable said.
The Algerian diplomatic source aid: “No conflict exists between the president and the head of the DRS (Department of Intelligence and Security). These are rumors propagated by drawing room gossip and by diplomats hostile to Algeria.”
In a cable of June 28, 2008, Deputy Chief of Mission Thomas Daughton wrote: ”As we think about how to improve relations with the Bouteflika government, we see a frail Algerian president whose health and term of office are uncertain.
“He wants better relations with the U.S., but his political weight within the system has limits and he cannot fix in any short term the bureaucratic failings of his government.”
Editing by Andrew Roche