Reaction in Algeria mixed as Bouteflika says he’s stepping down

The news he will not stand in elections elicited cheers but that he will oversee the change has worried some writes Simon Speakman Cordall in Tunis

Algerians reacted with a mixture of relief and anger at the news President Abdelaziz Bouteflika would not seek re-election but would remain in charge while a revised constitution is drafted.

Within minutes of the announcement, the Arabic hashtag ‘leave means leave’ began trending on Twitter. On March 3, the ailing 82-year old had made an offer to the nation – elect him again and he would undertake constitutional reforms and leave within a year.

Many on social media said they saw his announcement on Monday evening as the same offer but without submitting himself to a popular vote.

Protesters have said they will not leave the streets until the government, and all those in the tiny elite of military officers, veterans and big businessmen dubbed “Le Pouvoir”, have handed over power.

Protests have been building across the North African country since February when Mr Bouteflika’s office first announced his intention to seek a fifth term.

Over the weekend, with the president away receiving medical treatment in Switzerland, the number of demonstrators swelled to their hundreds of thousands in cities across Algeria. On Sunday, a general strike was announced, threatening to paralyse the country. On Monday, over a thousand Judges penned a letter to say they would not oversee April’s presidential poll if Mr Bouteflika was on the ballot.

Then late on Monday, the president told the nation that he “understood the motivation of many people who chose this method of expression,” and said he would be stepping down.

He vowed that the changes would bring in a “new system and new republic … in the hands of a new generation of Algerians.”

The country will, he said, hold a national conference until the end of 2019 to find a successor and plan for the future. In effect, he has simply extended his fourth term rather than seeking a curtailed fifth, political activist Nait Ikene Abderrahmane, who has been on the streets in the protests, told The National.

“For us, this news is essentially an extension of the mandate of the current president, [but] it has no constitutional basis,” he said. “It is obvious that the regime is afraid of the people and the peaceful protest,” he said, adding that he sees the president’s move as a tactical necessity more than a desire for sincere reform.

“For these reasons, we chose to continue our protest until the departure of this regime and all that symbolizes it.”

Jessica Northey, a research fellow at Coventry University specialising in civil society and governance in Algeria, told The National that the issue of the term extension is only one aspect of the situation that is constitutionally questionable.

She pointed out that the constitutional two-term limit was lifted in 2008 to allow Mr Bouteflika to run a third and fourth time before it was imposed again in 2016. “Given that his very presence within the vote was unconstitutional,” she said, “the vote itself could never really be legal.”

Ms Northey said that given the scale of the protests against Mr Bouteflika’s fifth term, it was important he had ruled himself out. Of particular significance is the fate of Le Pouvoir – the shadowy group that includes his brother Said.

“Without Bouteflika, the unelected groupings around him … can no longer illegally exert power through him, which has been one of the key demands of the protesters,” she said.

Despite the reservations, hundreds still took to the streets of Algiers on Monday night, dancing, singing and honking car horns in celebration.

Algerian journalist Amine Hocine told The National that the sense of celebration and the hesitation wasn't a contradiction. "Even if there are protesters celebrating this 'half victory' now, many people think that this decision is not enough," he said.

He cautioned that the fact Mr Bouteflika was planning to stay on to oversee the transition was itself an issue. “This is not transition,” Mr Hocine said. “Bouteflika and his regime can't lead a transitional phase simply because those who are the problem can't become the solution at the same time.”

He said the solution that would satisfy protesters was simple. “Bouteflika and his regime have to leave power to a transitional government and not appoint and supervise the transitional government themselves.”