Algeria's Tempest Grows as Powerful Groups Back Protesters

(Bloomberg) -- Opposition to Algeria’s ruling regime swelled as lawmakers from the OPEC member’s oldest party resigned from parliament and a powerful group of veterans joined demonstrations against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term.

The escalating opposition against the 82-year-old president has posed the biggest challenge yet to a ruling elite, known as “le pouvoir,” that managed to avoid the turmoil that gripped neighbors during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The backing by veterans of Algeria’s war of independence from France delivered a heavily symbolic blow to the ruling National Liberation Front, which launched the 1954-1962 conflict.

“The MALG veterans share the people’s concern and anger in the face of the contempt expressed by ‘le pouvoir’ in its refusal to meet demands for irrevocable change,” they said. “There is no room left for procrastination.”

Influential legislators from the opposition Front of Socialist Forces said they were resigning from parliament in support of the grassroots demands for change. “The people have made their voice clear throughout the country, demanding a change to the regime that has ruled them since independence,” they said.

Coffers Depleted

Grievances run deep in Algeria after years in which the oil and gas exporter failed to create sufficient jobs and relied on state handouts it can no longer afford to keep the peace. Volatility in crude markets halved the country’s foreign reserves, leaving the government struggling to meet the needs of a majority youth population. Protests erupted on Feb. 22.

On March 3, Bouteflika’s campaign submitted the necessary paperwork to put him on the ballot. On Wednesday, a newspaper in Switzerland where he’s hospitalized reported that his health had deteriorated.

Bouteflika is under “permanent and critical threats” to his health, and he’s vulnerable to respiratory infections, the Tribune de Geneve reported, citing unidentified sources.

Bouteflika’s campaign manager, Abdelghani Zalene, said the president was undergoing routine medical tests and his “health condition is not worrying,” ElKhabar newspaper reported on Thursday. He called the protests “an attempt to hijack the demands and hopes of the Algerian people.”

Short Term

After his nomination papers were filed, Bouteflika vowed to amend the constitution and serve for only a year if he wins the April 18 ballot. The offer did nothing to defuse tensions.
Larger student-led protests are planned for Friday. Six teachers unions announced their support of the protests and called a March 13 strike. Members of the country’s bar association, its medical college and women’s rights advocacy group UNFA have also backed the protesters’ demands.

Military’s Warning

Bouteflika, largely incapacitated by a 2013 stroke, still commands a measure of support and is widely credited with stabilizing the country after a ruinous civil war in the 1990s. If the protesters were hoping the military would intervene as Egypt’s did in 2011, then they’ve been sorely disappointed.

There’s little indication, however, that the protests will ease.

“If popular and foreign pressure grows, especially with the Friday march, it’s quite possible that the Constitutional Council can decide to invalidate Bouteflika’s candidacy,” said Yamine Boudhane, a political analyst and professor at Setif University.

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