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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 March 2019

Algeria sees the largest protest yet against Abdelaziz Bouteflika's fifth term plan

Algeria's 81-year-old president is seeking to extend his 20-year rule

Algerian protesters took to the streets against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term in power. AFP
Algerian protesters took to the streets against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term in power. AFP

After a week of building protests, Algeria held the largest rally yet on Friday as tens of thousands took to the streets to voice anger at the plan by the octogenarian president to run for a fifth term.

Although demonstrations were largely peaceful, a 60-year old man has died after suffering a heart attack on Friday, local media reported. Several protesters have also been injured in scuffles with police who have responded with tear gas and batons.

Protesters demonstrate in the streets of Algiers. AP
Protesters demonstrate in the streets of Algiers. AP

Algeria’s News website TSA put the number of wounded at 63, citing official figures. It said 45 people were detained.

A sea of demonstrators flooded the capital of Algiers chanting “Bye, bye Bouteflika!", many waving Algerian flags.

Although demonstrations are not uncommon in Algeria, most are small, local, single-issue matters that quickly dissipate. Large scale rallies that sustain over several days are rarely seen.

Despite the prime minister saying last week that the place to voice opposition to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was at the ballot box in April’s election, protests have not abated.

"Everyone has the right to support their candidate and be against any other candidate. The ballot box will decide in a peaceful and civilised way," Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia.

Mr Bouteflika, who turned 82 on Saturday, suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public since. Despite questions of his age and health, the fractured and weakened opposition still stands little chance of dethroning the incumbent who already has the backing of several powerful unions before officially submitting his candidacy.

Analysts have suggested that keeping Mr Bouteflika in office is a way to avoid a potentially bruising succession race in the FLN party.

Swiss media reported that Mr Bouteflika was undergoing treatment at the University of Geneva Hospital. Although Algiers confirmed he would be undergoing unspecified medical checks in Switzerland, there has been no comment on his departure.

"Look at the Algerian youth, all they are demanding is a valid president who can talk to the people," Hamdane Salim, a 45-year-old public sector worker, told Reuters. "Twenty years are enough," said Khadidja, a woman accompanied by her husband and children.

Among the crowd was Djamila Bouhired, 83, a heroine of the 1954-1962 independence war against France, who told reporters: "I'm happy to be here."

After hours of marching, many protesters began walking home but some stayed on, dancing and singing.

"This is a celebration, not a protest. We are celebrating Algeria's rebirth," said Ali Selmi. "It's like the end of a football match and Algeria won 3-0."

Mohammed Saadi, another young man, said: "Our battle will continue until we win."

Anti-riot police officers clashed with people protesting in Algiers. Reuters
Anti-riot police officers clashed with people protesting in Algiers. Reuters

Large crowds also gathered in the cities of Oran, Constantine, Setif, Tizi Ouzou and Bouira, residents and local media said.

Known for wearing a three-piece suit even in the stifling heat, Mr Bouteflika garnered respect for his role in ending Algeria’s decades-long civil war that official figures say killed nearly 200,000 people.

Mr Bouteflika has ruled Algeria since 1999 and stamped out a decade-long Islamist insurgency early in his rule.

Many Algerians have long accepted a political system with little space for public dissent as a price to pay for peace and stability.

But the new protest wave appears to have broken the long taboo on public discussion of politics.

Mr Bouteflika led a large infrastructure investment and development plan through the 2000s off the back of the country’s large petrochemical and natural resource reserves. However, when oil prices tumbled after 2014 the state struggled to maintain subsidies and handouts that now account for 21 per cent of the government budget.

The government shelved plans to reform the subsidy program late last year until after the presidential election, citing the risk of protests in the run up the vote.

Nearly a third of Algerians under 25 are unemployed and many accuse the elite of corruption and nepotism or at least of mismanagement of the country’s resources.

Updated: March 2, 2019 11:48 AM

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