Algerians Protest Despite Bouteflika Pledging to End Two-Decade Rule
(Bloomberg) -- Algerians thronged streets nationwide in some of the biggest anti-government protests since they began three weeks ago, signaling their rejection of regime attempts to appease the anger and piling pressure on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to immediately end his two-decade rule.
The largely peaceful demonstrations in the OPEC member that began Feb. 22 were initially called to force the ailing 82-year-old leader not to seek a fifth term in office in an election was scheduled for April. After achieving that, the mostly young protesters have grown in confidence and are now calling for the overthrow of the ruling establishment, in an echo of the Arab uprisings of 2011.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters massed in the streets of central Algiers after Friday prayers, a scene played out in other major cities nationwide. In the capital, the boisterous yet orderly crowd poured out across the major boulevards and squares amid a festive atmosphere. Overwhelmed by the size of the crowds, police had to temporarily open barricades they had erected to bar access to some of the capital’s arteries.
Waving the national flag, banners and chanting protests, demonstrators old and young found common ground in their opposition to the ailing Bouteflika and the country’s “le pouvoir," Algeria’s power brokers and backers in business, government and the military. Discontent focused on "pouvoir" and Bouteflika, with calls of "not a minute more” energizing the crowds.
‘Leave Means Leave’
Many demonstrators held up placards demanding a constituent assembly to define the foundations of the second Algerian republic, while also opposing any foreign interference in the country’s affairs. “Leave means leave, now and quietly,” read one sign -- employing the plural form in Arabic -- carried by a protester in Algiers. Echourouk TV said the protests were the biggest yet.
Protest organizers had urged that demonstrators avoid the area of the presidential compound to lessen the risk of confrontations with government security forces. As dusk fell, the crowds thinned and dispersed peacefully, with many volunteering to help with the clean up efforts.
After returning from two weeks of medical treatment in Switzerland, Bouteflika announced on Monday he was canceling the election, dismissing the government and beginning work on a plan for constitutional reforms and the election of a new president.
Newly appointed Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui said Thursday that authorities were intent on charting a course forward that was inclusive of all voices in Algeria.
Credited with healing the country after a decade-long civil war in the 1990s, Bouteflika has been largely incapacitated and rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, but was put forward for another term as an understanding on a successor proved elusive. The opposition is fragmented and no clear leaders have emerged to bid for top office.
Protesters saw this week’s moves as an attempt to buy time and sap their enthusiasm, and called for an even bigger turnout. Friday’s impressive show of force could force the authorities to make more concessions but that will not be easy.
"The end of Bouteflika means the end of a component of the regime," Abed Charef, a writer and political commentator told Radio M earlier this week. "Those people who lived around him will be gone if Bouteflika goes. They however have power and money, they represent a danger," Charef said.
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