Ailing Bouteflika Returns Defiant to Face Algerian Protests

(Bloomberg) -- Abdelaziz Bouteflika arrived home from Geneva on Sunday, signalling that the Algerian president intends to push ahead with his bid for re-election in the face of mass demonstrations demanding he step aside.

Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term has triggered seismic protests in the North African OPEC member, presenting the 82-year-old leader and ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party with their most serious challenge since his election in 1999.

His promises to amend the constitution and serve an abridged term if re-elected in the April 18 ballot have failed to satisfy protesters frustrated with “le pouvoir”, a cabal of military officers, veterans of Algeria’s war of independence and big businessmen who have governed the oil and gas producer for decades.

In a statement released hours before Bouteflika was discharged from a Geneva hospital and rushed to the airport, the FLN said it was working with all political groups to find a way out of the crisis while preserving the national interest, hinting that the ruling elite was looking to appease the street without unsettling the political structure.

In another indication authorities were preparing to respond to nationwide demonstrations, which began on Feb. 22 and have drawn in ever larger numbers, the powerful military chief of staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah struck a conciliatory tone. Eschewing earlier warnings against unrest that could drive Algeria back to the ruinous days of the 1990s civil war, Salah said the military and the people “are partners in one destiny.”

“The president’s arrival or lack thereof changes nothing,” Zubida Assoul, leader of the small opposition Union for Change and Progress said in live comments on Hadath television network. “What all of the Algerian people are awaiting is for the authorities to declare their response to the people.”

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Bouteflika has been largely incapacitated and rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Swiss media reported in recent days that his health was deteriorating. The official APS news agency confirmed Bouteflika had returned after medical checks in Geneva. Live images showed the president’s plane and motorcade, but he has yet to appear in public.

While Algeria largely avoided the turmoil that shook its neighbors during the Arab Spring uprisings, its citizens have struggled with rising prices, frustration over alleged corruption and deteriorating living standards since oil prices tumbled from over $100 a barrel in 2014, the last time Bouteflika ran for office. The downturn in global oil markets has since sapped half the country’s foreign reserves and sharply crimped the government’s ability to sustain a generous subsidy system that had helped to placate a youthful population crying out for jobs.

The series of official comments coming from Bouteflika’s camp are reminiscent of promises made by other leaders in the heated days of the 2011 uprisings. That sequence -- first ignore, then cajole and then offer minor reforms -- did little to insulate the longtime leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen.

A member of the president’s campaign team, Faysal Bousedraya, said in comments to Hadath television that Bouteflika would not yield to pressure from the streets -- nor from rivals in the military establishment -- and would leave the presidency on his own terms and in line with his earlier promises to amend the constitution and call early elections.

“I don’t think that anybody is counting on either the military or the FLN to lead a transition,” said Hannah Rae Armstrong, an analyst at International Crisis Group. “You might hear isolated calls for the military, and some have come from political spheres, but that’s certainly not what the protesters are asking for and its not what they want.”

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