Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Algerians defy rain to demand President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resign

Fourth week of protests against ageing leader despite promise not to run for office again

Demonstrators holding umbrellas take part in a protest calling on Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to quit, in Algiers on March 22, 2019. Reuters
Demonstrators holding umbrellas take part in a protest calling on Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to quit, in Algiers on March 22, 2019. Reuters

Algerians gathered in their thousands in rain-soaked cities across the country for the fifth Friday in succession to voice their absolute rejection of the ailing 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s latest bid to remain in power while sweeping constitutional reforms are undertaken.

“I am against Bouteflika and his system because they are a failed system,” a spokesperson for one of the leading protest groups, No to The Fifth Term, No to The Perpetuation of Corruption, told The National. “My country is the size of a continent and all the goods, resources and energies are available, but the regime is a failure.”

After a series of dramatic climbdowns and high-profile desertions since the protests began on February 22, on Monday the president again doubled down on his bid to retain office, issuing a letter reaffirming his position that his fourth term would be extended while a "national conference" oversaw dramatic constitutional reform.

However, after weeks of ceaseless protests against Mr Bouteflika and the "pouvoir" – the shadowy circle of influencers said to surround the paraplegic president, their position is beginning to look increasingly isolated. During a tumultuous week, his own ruling National Liberation Party (FLN) has seemingly sided with the protesters, before being cited by a satellite television station as reaffirming their "moral and political" commitment to the president a day later. Likewise, the unflinching support of the army, a critical actor in Algeria’s politics, no longer looks as reliable as it once was. On Tuesday, while touring army bases, army chief Lt Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah told reporters that the month of protests had been “marked by the deeds of noble aims and pure intentions, through which the Algerian people has clearly expressed its values and principles of sincere and dedicated work to Allah and the motherland”.

Opposing them are the hundreds and thousands of demonstrators, disillusioned with a stagnating economy and years of the country’s vast wealth being hoarded by the select few. Though still largely leaderless, there are signs of the movement beginning to coalesce around an alliance of jurists and members of the country’s traditionally splintered opposition titled the National Co-ordination for Change. In a statement issued on Tuesday, the group called upon the president not to exceed his originally mandated term, due to expire in April, and for the army not to intervene within the protest movement.

“The Co-ordination is composed of some political figures known and accepted by the people and coming from diverse ideologies,” Algerian journalist Amine Hocine told The National, stressing the absence of those opposition politicians who had sided with the regime over its decades in power in a public show of faux pluralism.

“The Co-ordination demands are very reasonable, such as the withdrawal of the president by the end of his term, the dismissal of the government, the dissolution of parliament and the non-interference of the army and the security services in politics, and these were all the main reasons for the current political impasse,” he said.

However, given the scale of the popular protest, the defections of both political allies and the security services’ uncertain allegiance, Mr Bouteflika’s personal utility to the pouvoir that has surrounded him for years cannot be guaranteed.

“Bouteflika is basically a busted flush,” Professor Jonathan Hill of Kings College, London, told The National. “His power to effect the reform he promised is significantly diminished. On the flip side, he’s actually damaging those around him and diminishing the overall power of the pouvoir. However, despite this, they still can’t decide who might succeed him. “

Algeria’s status as a major regional power is also coming under international scrutiny. Shoring up international support for the regime, Deputy Prime Minister Ramtane Lamamra visited several countries including Russia, which later warned against unspecified moves to destabilise a government that imports some 66 per cent of its total arms from Moscow. Algeria is the fifth largest weapons importer globally.

Further to its status as a bulwark against much of the strife currently racking the region is Algeria’s position as a major source of hydrocarbons, a still critical commodity despite falling oil prices. “The protests are being watched with some degree of apprehension in Europe, especially in Paris, Madrid and Rome," Prof Hill said, also noting European concerns over increased migration.

“Above all else they want to see stability and are very mindful about what might come next. For a variety of reasons, the EU will want this resolving quickly.”

However, such concerns mean little for the hundreds and thousands of Algerians who gathered in the rain across Algiers, Constantine, Oran, Blida, Bejaia and other towns on Friday.

After "years of misery", one protester told The National, “rain isn’t going to stop us from demanding change.”

Updated: March 22, 2019 06:17 PM

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