Bouteflika returns to Algeria as ruling elite turn on leader

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika./Ph. DR
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika./Ph. DR
Author

14 March, 2019

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed on Tuesday the decision of his Algerian counterpart, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to give up his bid to run for fifth consecutive term amid mass protests that rocked the country after the 82-year-old leader announced his intention to seek re-election.

According to the time frame outlined, a national conference supposed to "represent all the currents of the society" must fix a date for the next presidential election and to present, at the end of 2019, a new constitution which will be put to a popular referendum. "Bouteflika can still remain in power until the end of the so-called national conference, with no guarantees or a timetable".

Sources told Reuters a conference on "planning Algeria's future" will be held soon, chaired by former foreign minister and United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. "We defeated the supporters of the fifth term!" said taxi-driver Mohamed Kaci, 50.

In Tlemcen, Bouteflika's stronghold 540km west of Algiers, the president's decision was celebrated on Monday night as drivers beeped horns and people on the street cheered.

Algeria's election had been slated for April 18; Bouteflika said the vote will be delayed to ease apprehensions and "pave the way for spreading serenity, tranquility and public security".

Contacts are now underway with war veterans who may take part in the transition, including Djamila Bouhired and Zohra Drif Bitat, two of the most famous guerrilla fighters of the conflict, political sources said.

France's foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, praised Bouteflika's declaration and said France was "hopeful that a new momentum to reward the highest aspirations of the Algerian people will quickly emerge".

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"I think Algeria has drawn lessons from what's happened elsewhere", she said, adding the population has no appetite for revisiting its bloody past.

Bouteflika said the government would organise a national conference under the direction of an independent presidential commission. "They're just 13-year-old kids". Nearby, other young Algerians made V-for-victory signs.

However, more than two-thirds of Algerians are now under 30, and are seeking a more "democratic Algeria" as they chanted in the protests.

Algeria's powerful military is expected to play its traditional behind-the-scenes role during the transition and is now considering several civilians as candidates for the presidency and other top positions, political sources said.

A number of protests have also been staged in Switzerland against the Algerian president since he arrived in the country.

Algerians have hardly seen Bouteflika since he suffered a stroke in 2013, and anger has mounted at the country's secretive power structure.

The security forces have been mostly restrained during the demonstrations, a signal of the establishment's eroding willingness to keep the president in power through force.


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