Algerians Rally to End a Weakened Bouteflika's 20-Year Rule

(Bloomberg) -- Algerian protesters answered calls for the biggest rallies yet against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose 20-year grip over Africa’s largest energy producer is being chipped away by defections as his health declines at a hospital in Geneva.

The rallies on Friday brought tens of thousands to the streets of Algiers. The circle of dissent against the president has widened since he announced his intention to run for a fifth term in April elections, despite making very few public appearances after he suffered a stroke in 2013.

While Algeria largely skipped the turmoil of 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. Algeria is a member of OPEC and is Europe’s third-largest supplier of natural gas.

Military Veterans

Teacher unions announced a five-day strike starting Sunday, the beginning of the work week in Algeria. Members of 82-year-old president’s ruling National Liberation Front have quit the party, and veterans of the country’s war of independence against France called for the military to side with demonstrators.

"The election must be canceled. It’s not serious," said one of the protesters, who gave his name as Samir, declining to give a last name for security concerns. “Bouteflika is dead as far as I’m concerned. He doesn’t do anything for me and we must start building a new Algeria."

A statement issued by Bouteflika’s office on Thursday had warned that enemies at home and abroad could infiltrate the protests, which have been largely peaceful since they began on Feb. 22. The warning went unheeded as demonstrators filled the streets swathed in green and white Algerian flags.

Swiss Hospital

In Geneva, police detained dissident Algerian businessman and political activist Rachid Nekkaz after he tried to enter the university hospital where Bouteflika is reportedly being treated. Nekkaz was held for questioning at the police station after the hospital said he had trespassed, a police spokeswoman said on Friday. A group of roughly 30 people assembled in front of the hospital late on Friday morning and were asked by police to move to a nearby park, officials also said.

The 82-year-old Bouteflika is suffering “permanent and critical threats” to his health, according to the Swiss newspaper Tribune de Geneve. The hospital has refused to comment on whether Bouteflika is a patient.

Any serious deterioration in his condition could provide the ruling elite, known as “le pouvoir,” or "the power" in French, with an exit strategy that allows them to anoint a replacement and split off those protesters fearful of unleashing a violent confrontation.

The warning from the president’s office was reminiscent of those from Arab leaders in 2011 as the region was convulsed by uprisings that ultimately brought down regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In a sign of their growing ambition, Algerian activists responded to the last statement with a call for 20 million people to march on Friday, half the population.

Economic Pressure

The North African nation’s government has in the past relied on oil and gas to fund state handouts that have largely kept the peace. But volatility in the crude market drained half of Algeria’s foreign reserves and sent its budget deficit spiraling, leaving the government struggling to create jobs for the majority youth population.

Still, Bouteflika is credited with restoring calm following a decade-long civil war that erupted after the military canceled an Islamist electoral victory in 1991, leaving him with a loyal following among some older voters. Algeria under his rule has also been a bulwark against Islamist militancy and illegal migration to Europe from other parts of Africa.

Earlier this week, Algeria’s influential military chief, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, warned against further instability and said the army would protect the nation’s gains from those who want a return “to the years of pain and fire."

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