Algeria: MPs quit and join protest at absent president's fifth term bid

Tens of thousands protested against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Friday

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Algerians flooded to the country’s main cities in their tens of thousands on Friday in the largest rally to call on their ailing octogenarian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to withdraw his bid for a fifth term in the country’s April elections.

For two weeks, peaceful protests have dominated Algeria's headlines, with demonstrators gathering throughout the country to call for Mr Bouteflika to stand down. They have rejected his offer of serving a limited term while overseeing sweeping constitutional reform.

"Bouteflika, go!" read one banner. "Algeria is a republic, not a kingdom" and "No elections until the gangs are brought down", said others.

The police response so far has been largely confined to crowd control although at several rallies as the evening draws in and many people leave, young men have clashed with police who respond with tear gas.

People clash with anti-riot police during the protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Algiers, Algeria March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People clash with anti-riot police during the protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers. Reuters

On Friday evening, the same pattern emerged with as the youth threw rocks at police who fought back as darkness fell. Authorities have said that 195 people were arrested and 112 police officers were injured.
State TV reported that unidentified people broke into a primary school and the nearby national museum, stealing some ancient items and burning parts of the building.

Politicians have been keen to stoke memories of Algeria's bloody civil war during the 1990s, while a statement attributed to the President warned of 'infiltration' by unspecified elements.

As protesters filled the streets of the country’s towns, the first indications of cracks within the ruling elite began to form as several members of Mr Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN) resigned along with jurists and veterans of the security services to join with the protesters to march against what they saw as an inherently flawed poll.

"For days, Algeria has been witnessing an unprecedented peaceful revolutionary situation led only by the people,” lawyer, Mokrane Ait Larbi, wrote in his public resignation from the team of independent presidential candidate Ali Ghediri. “It would not be possible at this historic crossroads to achieve a breakthrough via elections.”

Although there is frustration at Mr Bouteflika’s 20-year rule, the opposition remains fractured and few see a viable contender in challenging the current leadership even though the president suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public since.

People protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Algiers, Algeria March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina
Tens of thousands took to the streets of Algiers. Reuters

In another development, one of the capital’s most popular Imams did not include the president in his sermon on Friday, only wishing the best for Algeria and its people.

Then, APS, the state news agency, that said protesters were demanding “regime change.” In the first few days, the agency did not cover the protests and when it then did it reported that demonstrators waned “political change”.

While protests continue to spread across Algeria, the president himself remains absent. Currently undergoing treatment in a private clinic in Geneva, the president’s health has not allowed him to return to the country, either to officially confirm his candidacy at the Constitutional Court or address the demonstrations his apparent incapacity has helped fuel.

In deteriorating health, Mr Bouteflika is widely suspected to have become a front-man for a shadowy group of senior security officials, industrialists and trade unions, who have worked with him to alter the constitution to maintain power. The limits on Presidential terms were lifted in 2008, before being reinstated in 2016.

In light of this, there is little goodwill within Algeria towards last Monday’s offer of a limited presidential term and reforms. The respect many in Algeria had for Mr Bouteflika’s role in bringing the country together after the bloody civil war has swiftly evaporated and his ambitious drive to develop the county off the back of large oil and resource wealth has slowed. Unemployment remains high and the country is beginning to struggle to maintain subsidies that now account for over 20 per cent of the state budget.

"The Algerian people as a whole see this offer as a poor manoeuvre that only has only one goal in mind: to buy time and allow the clan of the president…  to take the money out of the country and erase any evidence of this corruption," political activist Nait Ikene Abderrahmane told The National via social media, before pointing to concerns over the President's health and length of time in office.

“Finally, I would say that for the Algerians, Bouteflika and the entire system of governance in Algeria is part of the problem and not the solution. A system born of a military coup, which feeds on violence and which is maintained by the diversion of the popular will cannot be a base for reform.” Mr Abderrahmane, who has joined the demonstrations, said.

Despite the government’s offers of appeasement and rumblings of a return to the chaos of the country’s savage civil war during the 1990’s, the groundswell of popular opinion appears virtually unstoppable.

"Probably one of the key considerations of the ruling elite is to find a consensus figure who would provide a similar type of equilibrium than what Bouteflika has offered." Jihane Boudiaf, an analyst at IHS Country Risk told The National.

“The fact that Bouteflika officially submitted his candidacy [via his campaign director], despite the protests, suggests that they probably were taken off-guard by the ongoing protests and did not find that figure, yet.”

However, with politicians and the country’s more prominent citizens deserting both party and electoral process, who that consensus figure might be remains unclear.