Thousands demand quick political changes in Algeria
12 Mar 2019
Students demonstrate in the centre of the capital Algiers on Tuesday. Agence France-Presse
Thousands protested across Algeria on Tuesday, demanding immediate political changes a day after ailing President Abelaziz Bouteflika abandoned his bid for a fifth term in power but stopped short of stepping down.
Huge crowds gathered in several cities and Ennahar TV reported workers began a strike that paralysed operations at the Mediterranean port at Bajaia.
Bouteflika, 82, bowed to weeks of mass demonstrations against his 20-year rule on Monday and promised a transition to a new leadership. But he postponed elections scheduled for April, meaning he will likely remain in power for some time.
Veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and protest groups will join a conference planning Algeria’s future, government and political sources told media on Tuesday.
Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and UN special envoy, was expected to chair the conference that will oversee the transition, draft a new constitution and set the date for elections, a government source said.
Crowds who came back onto the streets on Tuesday demanded quicker action.
“The whole system must disappear immediately. Our battle will continue,” 25-year-old student Noureddine Habi said in central Algiers as others chanted: “We want this system to go.”
Algerians have grown tired of the ailing leader and other veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France who have dominated a country with high unemployment, poor services and rampant corruption despite its oil and gas.
More than a quarter of Algerians under 30 are unemployed.
Algeria’s deputy prime minister said Boutiflika’s decision was the most important turning point in since independence from France in 1962, Annahar TV reported.
“A competent government will be established, with the confidence of the participants in the national conference, which will supervise the presidential process,” said Ramtan Lamamra.
Contacts are now underway with prominent war veterans who may take part in political changes including, Djamila Bouhired, Zohra Drif Bitat, Lakhdar Bouregaa, said political sources. Algeria’s powerful military is expected to play a behind-the-scenes role during the transition and is currently considering several civilians as candidates for the presidency and other top positions, political sources said.
One of them includes a prominent lawyer and activist Mustafa Bouchachi, who has gained a wide following on Facebook during the protests.
French President Emmanuel Macron urged Algerian authorities to organise a “reasonable” transition after Bouteflika dropped a bid for a fifth term in office and scrapped upcoming elections.
“I welcome the decision by President Bouteflika, which is the start of a new page in the development of Algeria’s democracy,” Macron told a press conference during a visit to Djibouti in east Africa.
“I welcome the dignity with which the population and particularly Algeria’s youth, was able to express its hope, its desire for change, as well as the professionalism of the security forces,” he added.
But he argued the country needed “a transition in a reasonable timeframe” from Bouteflika’s 20-year rule.
The Paris government has been extremely cautious in its statements about Algeria in recent weeks amid concern it could be seen to be intervening in the affairs of its former north African colony.
French policymakers remain concerned about the risk of political instability in the energy-rich country, which has seen more than two weeks of peaceful demonstrations against Bouteflika.
In a message carried by Algerian news agency APS late on Monday, the 82-year-old leader said that new elections would follow a national conference on political and constitutional reform to be carried out by the end of 2019.
Macron called the outcome “a sign of maturity.”
“We will do everything to accompany Algeria in this transition with friendship and respect,” he added.