Algeria: Anger boils despite president's offer to protesters

05.03.2019

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's offer of a new constitution and a truncated next term does not appear to have satisfied protesters, who faced off with riot police overnight.

Crowds of mainly young protesters demonstrated into the early hours of Monday after Bouteflika's campaign manager formalised the president's candidacy for a fifth term in an April 18 election.

As well as voicing opposition to Bouteflika's attempt to hold onto power, the protesters are accusing the country's secretive leadership of failing to share Algeria's gas wealth, heavy-handed security policies and widespread corruption.

Police fired tear gas on protesters crying "Bouteflika, Get Out!" in Maurice Audin Square in western Algiers, according to images on Algerian private television networks.

Demonstrators set a social security office on fire in the working class neighbourhood of Belouizdad, an Islamist stronghold, prompting clashes with police. The number of people injured or arrested has not been released.

Demonstrations were also held in other cities against another term for Bouteflika, who has barely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke and is facing protests over his leadership of Africa's largest country.

Responding to Algeria's biggest protest movement in years, Bouteflika said Sunday in a statement that if he's re-elected, he would hold a referendum on a new constitution and call an early election in which he wouldn't run.

He also promised to fight endemic corruption, better distribute Algeria's wealth - which is heavily dependent on natural gas – and create better opportunities for Algerians who risk their lives to try to migrate across the Mediterranean to Europe.

"I am resolute: If God wants and the Algerian people give me its trust, I will take the challenge of changing the regime," Bouteflika wrote in a statement read on national television by campaign chief Abdelghani Zaalane.

But protesters don't want Bouteflika to run at all in the April 18 vote and described the offer as a ploy to remain in power. Opposition parties are holding meetings Monday to decide the next steps after Bouteflika's announcement.

Opposition figures largely rejected Bouteflika's offers and appeals are spreading online for a new nationwide protest action Friday.

"What Bouteflika is proposing is just a manoeuvre to find a way to buy time," Mustapha Bouchachi, a member of the Mouwatana protest movement, said Monday on El-Hayat television.

He said Bouteflika refused to consider similar reform proposals offered by the opposition in 2015.

"It's too late," he said. "There's only one thing left for him to do – withdraw his candidacy and return home, if he wants to avoid a new bloodbath in Algeria."

Questions are swirling around who is actually running the country – the 82-year-old Bouteflika or a coterie of powerful aides and generals. His campaign chief submitted Bouteflika's candidacy Sunday, instead of the president himself, who was in Switzerland last week for medical tests.

Mystery around Bouteflika's whereabouts and doubts about his fitness for office prompted the Algerian ambassador to France to insist Monday that "of course he is alive."

"He's the one who is deciding, not the system," Ambassador Abdelkader Mesdoua said on France's CNews television.

"Obviously he isn't in the same health condition as when he was 20, but he has the full mind he had when he was 20," Mesdoua said. "He is physically diminished and I think this will certainly be his last battle, the final battle of his life to allow this generational transition for Algeria."

Bouteflika was first elected in 1999 and is credited with reconciling the country after a decade of civil war between Islamic insurgents and security forces that left around 200,000 dead.

Algeria sees frequent localised protests over tangible concerns like sewage or housing – problems the government can solve by spending money to fix them. When neighbouring Tunisia and Libya overthrew autocratic leaders in 2011, Algeria avoided a mass Arab Spring uprising by boosting public spending to address economic concerns.

"What's different now is that this is about the expression of political will," said Geoff Porter of North African Risk Consulting. "The government can't respond to this by spending resources."

He warned that the political uncertainty is worrying foreign investors, because it's threatening recent government efforts at long-overdue reforms to Algeria's gas-dependent economy.    (AP)

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