Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Algerian protesters keep up pressure on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika

People welcome the military's call for the president to go but say its role in politics must end as well

People carry national flags during a protest in Algiers on March 29, 2019 to demand the removal of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Reuters
People carry national flags during a protest in Algiers on March 29, 2019 to demand the removal of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Reuters

Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through Algiers for the sixth Friday in succession to demand the removal of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, saying that moves by top loyalists to abandon the ailing leader were not enough.

Dancing, blowing horns and shouting freedom slogans, some demonstrators also called for the entire political elite to go, saying that while they were against Mr Bouteflika they also rejected the army's intervention in civilian political life.

Veterans from Algeria's civil war demonstrate against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers on March 29, 2019. AFP
Veterans from Algeria's civil war demonstrate against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers on March 29, 2019. AFP

“Streets pressure will continue until the system goes,” said student Mohamed Djemai, 25, as hundreds of riot police kept an eye on the protests and helicopters flew overhead.

“We have only one word to say today, all the gang must go immediately, game over,” said Ali a merchant, as other protesters shouted “the people want the fall of the regime”.

"Bouteflika you go, take Gaid Salah with you," and "FLN out" protesters in the capital shouted, referring to the armed forces chief of staff and the president's party.

Amid a festival atmosphere, families standing on balconies above the streets cheered the marchers, who shared out dates and water and bought ice cream from street vendors.

The army chief of staff, Lt Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah, on Tuesday asked the constitutional council to rule whether the ailing 82-year-old president was fit for office.

The move piled pressure on Mr Bouteflika, who has failed to placate Algerians by reversing a decision to seek a fifth term.

Key allies have deserted the head of state, who has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 and now faces the biggest crisis of his 20-year-old rule.

Protesters have ambitious demands in a country long dominated by veterans of the independence war against France who are seen by many Algerians as too old and out of touch.

They want to replace the establishment with a new generation of leaders capable of modernising the oil-dependent state and giving hope to a population impatient for a better life.

The powerful military has stayed in the barracks. But Lt Gen Salah's call for Mr Bouteflika to go was a clear reminder to Algerians that the army intends to retain its vast influence in politics.

Saadia Belaid, a woman crying as she wore the flag of Algeria, said: “I cry because they kidnapped Algeria and the army's proposal is a real travesty.”

“We want the departure of Salah,” read a banner.

Lt Gen Salah's call received backing from the ruling FLN party and the main trade union, signalling that Mr Bouteflika's time was all but up.

The reaction to the army's intervention from protest leaders has been a mixture of caution and pragmatism.

“The military showed that it was with the people during the protests,” said lawyer and activist Moustafa Bouchachi, the most prominent figure to emerge from the protests.

“I hope it will continue to be with the people, and yes I hope it will help secure a transition.”

In the latest blow to the president, one of his few remaining influential supporters, leading businessman Ali Haddad, resigned as head of the influential FCE business forum.

Mr Haddad, who was awarded large public works projects by the government and has investments in the media, has helped to fund Mr Bouteflika’s election campaigns over the years.

Under the constitution, the chairman of parliament's upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, would serve as caretaker president for at least 45 days after Mr Bouteflika's departure. But even if Mr Bouteflika quits, there is no clear long-term successor.

Mr Bouchachi, the protest leader, says it is too early to discuss who will succeed Mr Bouteflika.

Some of those who are prepared to speculate see opposition politician Ahmed Benbitour as a possible contender. He resigned as prime minister under Mr Bouteflika due to disagreements over the economic dominance of the ruling elite and lack of transparency.

Other names include former communication minister Abdelaziz Rahabi and former president and army general Liamine Zeroual.

But whoever becomes caretaker president will have to be acceptable to the generals.

While Algeria’s local and parliamentary elections can be genuine contests, albeit open only to parties approved by the authorities, presidential elections are tightly controlled and the army’s preferred candidate in effect is guaranteed to win.

Updated: March 30, 2019 05:17 PM

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