Algeria Protests: President’s Offer Fails to Temper Outrage

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Summary

 

Since Bouteflika’s official announcement of his candidacy for a fifth term, hundreds of thousands of women and men have peacefully demonstrated across Algeria to oppose his new candidacy. President Bouteflika has been in power for over two decades, despite his physical condition – the 82-years-old president is paralyzed since a stroke in 2013 and can barely talk – and his absence from the public arena for about 7 years.

 

In response to the growing dissatisfaction, the head of state explained in a public letter, last Sunday, that he has acknowledged the dissatisfaction of the population and promised to start his fifth term, if elected, by [holding an inclusive national conference]. Furthermore, he stated that he would cut short his new mandate by holding an early presidential election. However, these concessions do not seem to have calmed the anger of the demonstrators.

 

The president is currently in Geneva, where he is treated in a hospital. His condition is so worrying that even the Algerian Ambassador in Paris had to make a public announcement affirming that Bouteflika was still alive. Therefore, the demonstrations are not only directed against the shadow president but also express a global rejection of the ruling political class and call for a change in the political system.

 

 

 

Algeria Protests: President’s Offer Fails to Temper Outrage

 

Vows by Algeria’s ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to set early elections should he win a new term in April appear not to have satisfied the thousands of demonstrators who have rallied against his candidacy.

 

The youth who have been at the forefront of large-scale street protests against Mr. Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term demonstrated overnight Sunday, while opposition figures denounced the president’s concessions as a sham.

 

Protesters said their principal grievance — that Mr. Bouteflika is maintaining his candidacy after 20 years in office despite having a stroke in 2013 that left him paralyzed and nearly mute — had not been satisfied. Mr. Bouteflika, 82, has not spoken publicly in seven years and appears only rarely in images, seemingly immobile with his eyes fixed in front of him.

 

They were not impressed by a letter read out on state television on Sunday by his campaign director, in which the Algerian president said he “would not be a candidate” in any future election.

 

But he did not give a date for when those elections might be held, and the letter amounted to an admission that he was certain to be re-elected in April. The legitimacy of that vote has already been questioned, like previous elections.

Critics of the Algerian government said the concessions announced on Sunday were too little, too late.

 

“The youth today don’t want a fifth term,” Omar Belhouchet, the editor of the fiercely independent El Watan newspaper, said in a telephone interview from Algiers.

“They are fed up with this authoritarian regime which is stifling people, which is pushing its own citizens to die in the Mediterranean,” Mr. Belhouchet said, referring to the Algerian migrants currently attempting the hazardous sea crossing to Europe.

 

“The whole political system needs to be changed,” he added.

 

Mr. Bouteflika’s condition is such that the Algerian ambassador in Paris had to appear on French television on Monday to affirm that Mr. Bouteflika is indeed alive. “I say it all in certitude: Abdelaziz Bouteflika is alive,” said the ambassador, Abdelkader Mesdoua.

Power is thought to be exercised by a tight circle around the gravely ill president, including his younger brother, Said Bouteflika, and Ahmed Gaid Salah, the 79-year-old army chief of staff. Algerian news reports suggest that the ruling clique had been unable to agree on a successor to Mr. Bouteflika and so chose to run him again, despite his illness.

 

Algeria is a strategic ally of the United States and France in combating Islamic extremists in the Sahara. Its military, honed by a 10-year battle against militants in the 1990s, has a reputation for brutal efficiency and benefits from one of the largest defense budgets in Africa.

Mr. Bouteflika and his allies have kept their grip on power by warning of a return to the bloodshed of two decades ago. But that argument, like the concessions announced on Sunday, appears to carry little weight with a new generation. The letter, read out after Mr. Bouteflika formally filed his candidacy for the April 18 election, seemed to fall on deaf ears.

 

“I couldn’t care less about it,” Mourad, a doctor in Algiers who had joined the protesters, said of the letter. He refused to give his last name for fear of reprisals from the government.

“This isn’t serious. And, it’s beside the point,” Mourad said. “I think we’ve shaken them up with this people’s uprising.”

 

Mr. Bouteflika is currently being treated in a hospital in Geneva. Saturday night, in a sign that the protests were having an effect, Mr. Bouteflika dismissed his campaign manager, the former prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal, a staunch loyalist.

But Monday morning, the independent Algerian news site TSA reported that student marches against Mr. Bouteflika’s candidacy were still taking place across Algeria.

 

“The promises are a trap,” said Abdelhakim, a contractor who was protesting in Algiers. “The political class is finished. And that is the biggest gain of this popular uprising.”

The country rarely admits foreign journalists and has barred them completely during the latest unrest.

 

Abdelaziz Rahabi, a former culture and communications minister who is now an opposition politician, said Monday in an interview: “We don’t consider them concessions. These are to save Bouteflika, not the country. We’ve got a president who favors presidencies-for-life.”

 

 

Source: The New York Times, Adam Nossiter, Mar. 4, 2019. Photo credit to Ryad Kramdi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.