Low-key funeral begins for Algeria's ex-president Bouteflika

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A funeral began in Algeria on Sunday for Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the North African country's longest-serving president, at a cemetery for its independence heroes but without the honours 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.

An armoured vehicle towed the flag-draped coffin on a gun carriage adorned with flowers, and escorted by lines of police on motorcycles.

His successor President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, government members and foreign diplomats have gathered at the cemetery, guarded by blue and black-uniformed security officers.

The procession travelled from Bouteflika's nursing home to the cemetery east of downtown Algiers, as bystanders filmed it with their mobile phones.

Only journalists from Algerian national public media have been given access to the ceremony itself, and the official mourning period will last just three days instead of eight.

Without fanfare, in contrast with previous presidential deaths, state television had announced that Bouteflika would be laid to rest at El-Alia, where his predecessors 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.

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".

She added that decision makers didn't quite know what to do "because among the political, administrative and economic elites there are a rather large number who are products of or profiteers from the Bouteflika era."

- Muted reactions -

The announcement of his death triggered muted reactions in the former French colony, and some see 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.

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.

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