Algeria's Military Chief Says Bouteflika Must Be Removed

(Bloomberg) -- Algeria’s powerful military chief of staff said Tuesday that Abdelaziz Bouteflika should be removed from the presidency, in the strongest signal yet that the OPEC member’s ruling elite was preparing to end his 20-year rule after weeks of mass protests.

In televised remarks to officers, General Ahmed Gaid Salah said it was time to implement an article in the constitution that allows for the impeachment of an incapacitated president to end the crisis that has rattled the North African nation since Feb. 22. The turmoil began when 82-year-old Bouteflika, ailing and rarely seen in public, announced a bid to run for a fifth term in office in the face of popular opposition.

“A solution must be found to the crisis immediately,” Salah said. “It is the solution provided for by the constitution under article 102,” he said. This is in line with “the legitimate aspirations of the people, and will be consensual and accepted by all parties.”

Bouteflika has backtracked on his bid to stand for a new term. But his pledge to stay in office while he shepherds the country through a transition that includes drafting a new constitution has been rebuffed, with hundreds of thousands of people joining protests to demand he leave when his fourth period in office ends next month.

The drama unfolding in Algeria is being closely watched across the Mediterranean. Under Bouteflika, Europe’s third-largest gas supplier has been a bulwark against Islamist militancy and illegal migration from other parts of Africa. Unrest in Algeria could ricochet beyond its borders.

Opposition parties, labor unions and businessmen have called for Bouteflika to go as protesters who initially sought just to end his presidency are now demanding the removal of the entire regime that has governed the country for two decades.

With protests showing little sign of abating, the leadership has sought to maintain its hold while trying to present incremental concessions as a genuine shift toward a more transparent system. Salah’s call may be a continuation of that effort, said Louisa Ait Hamadouche, a political analyst and professor at Algiers University.

“In appearance, it’s a return to constitutionality. In appearance, it’s a response to the claims brought by the opposition for years. In appearance, it’s a response to the demands by demonstrators about the end of the president’s term,” said Hamadouche. But a deeper look suggests that what the regime has done is find “a legal solution to a political problem.”

Removing Bouteflika this way could mean an end or delay to plans for a democratic transition because Article 102 would require a quick presidential election. “There is probably a risk that the next presidential election will be an operation aimed at restoring the legality and legitimacy of the police regime currently in place,” she said.

Salah’s announcement failed to appease critics amid intense speculation about whether Bouteflika would preempt impeachment proceedings by resigning before his current term ends on April 28.

Secular human right activist Mustapha Bouchachi -- looked up to by many of the protesters -- called Salah’s move belated and incomplete. Algerian protesters want "men and women who have not partaken in the running of the country over the last 20 years" to oversee as a unity government the transition period, Bouchachi said in remarks carried by the HuffPost Maghreb edition.

Losing Salah

Salah was seen as a close ally of Bouteflika. He was one of the first people to meet the wheelchair-bound president when he returned from medical treatment in Switzerland in the midst of the upheaval.

His shift reflects the broader changes that the military has undergone over the past few years. Since 2015, the military hasn’t been the united block it was in the 1990s. Bouteflika led a purge that saw the dismissal of General Ahmed Mediene, head of the DRS intelligence service for 25 years and one of the most powerful men in the country. That move was followed by the removal of several senior army and DRS officers.

Under Article 102, a constitutional council would have to convene to determine whether Bouteflika was able to govern given his health. If it decides to remove him, the motion would have to be approved by two-thirds of parliament.

It is not clear when the constitutional council could meet and if the motion would pass muster in parliament, though Bouteflika’s support within the ruling FLN party and its allies has been slowly eroded by weeks of protests, with divisions surfacing over what to do next or who to nominate as a potential future leader.

“Only this solution will guarantee a stable constitutional status,” Salah said. Again lauding the protesters, he renewed his warning that they could be exploited by “ill-intentioned parties at home and abroad that seek to destabilize” the country.

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