Algeria must maintain its dignity and stability

As protests continue against President Abdelazziz Bouteflika's election bid, the nation has serious choices to make about its future

TOPSHOT - Algerian students demonstrate at Algiers' school of medicine on March 3, 2019 against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term. Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika pledged Sunday not to serve a full term if re-elected at April polls after huge protests against his bid to extend his 20 years in power. The ailing leader vowed in an 11th-hour letter read out on state television to organise a "national conference" that would set a date for early polls which he would not contest. The announcement came after hundreds of students staged new protests Sunday in the Algerian capital and other cities against a fifth term ahead of a midnight deadline for candidates to register for the 18 April vote. / AFP / RYAD KRAMDI
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In the past week, tens of thousands have filled the streets – not just in Algeria, but in London and Paris too – expressing frustration at the continued rule of President Abdelazziz Bouteflika. That these demonstrations have remained largely peaceful show that both the public and the country’s security services are committed to maintaining stability.

With the nation beset by economic downturn and political stasis, the anger of ordinary Algerians is understandable. However, it is not all directed at Mr Bouteflika himself, but more so the system he embodies and the powerful individuals who surround him. Despite suffering a stroke in 2013 that left him paralysed, the president is on course to contest, and probably win, a fifth term in April.

But this is not a matter of ousting a leader who succeeded in transforming the country after civil war tore through it between 1991 to 2002. It is about finding a way towards a peaceful and transparent transfer of power in one of the region’s most important – and opaque – nations.

That message was conveyed in an open letter by Mr Bouteflika on Sunday. “I have heard the heartfelt cry of the protesters,” he wrote, before laying out proposals for post-election political reforms and a second election, in which he would not stand.

The frustrations of Algerians are understandable. With two-thirds of the country’s revenue dependent on oil and gas, the dip in the price of crude has forced cuts to social programmes. More than half of the population is under 25 years old and youth unemployment hovers around 30 per cent. Poverty, housing shortages, corruption and the constant threat of extremism constitute the norms of daily life in the country.

And, given the lack of transparency in previous elections, many Algerians have understandably lost faith in the process. Steps to restore that faith, not by only calling for the removal of a leader, but by ensuring that ballots are free and fair, must be taken. And an accountable and dynamic generation of politicians should be allowed to emerge naturally.

Undoubtedly, Mr Bouteflika is still revered by large sections of the population for his role in restoring peace following a decade of conflict that killed 200,000 people, and for putting reconciliation at the centre of his programme.

Under his stewardship, Algeria has become a trusted ally of the West in the battle against terrorism and a reliable supplier of energy to Europe. His government was vindicated after it spoke out against western intervention in Libya in 2011 and recent European efforts to corral migrants in north Africa. Algeria was largely untouched as the Arab uprisings spread in 2011.

But the moment for Mr Bouteflika to step down will one day come, and when it does, it should be an end befitting his impressive legacy. An honest, transparent and dignified transition of power would be just that.