Demonstrators stand atop a building during a protest over President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika’s decision to postpone elections and extend his fourth term in office, in Algiers on Friday. Image Credit: Reuters

Highlights

  • Bouteflika refuses to step down immediately
  • Chief of staff says military remains a fortress
  • Deputy PM to seek support abroad
  • Union leaders refuse to cooperate with PM 
  • Protests gaining momentum

Algiers: Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Monday again defied mass protests calling for his immediate resignation, insisting on a plan to elect a successor only after a national conference and new constitution is approved.

Bouteflika, 82, last week bowed to demonstrators who say he unfit to run Algeria by announcing he had reversed a decision to stand for another term. But he stopped short of stepping down and postponed elections due in April, in effect extending his current term until a new constitution can be prepared.

The ailing 82-year-old also scrapped the election set for April 18 and announced he was rolling out reforms through a “national conference”.

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In a letter reported by Ennahar television, the veteran leader repeated an earlier plan for a national conference to reform the political system, which would be held shortly.

The forum will take "decisive decisions", state television quoted him as saying. A new constitution will then pave the way for a new president, the private Ennahar station added.

The scenario broadly reflects a timetable for change that Bouteflika mapped out on March 11.

Rarely seen in public since a 2013 stroke, Bouteflika issued a statement on Monday which confirmed his new plan would see him stay in power for months beyond the expiry of his term on April 28.

“(I hope) that Algeria experiences, in the near future, a harmonious transition and assists handing over the reins to a new generation,” he said in the statement carried by state media.

“This is the ultimate goal that I have committed to making a reality before the end of my presidential mandate, at your side and at your service,” added Bouteflika, who has ruled Algeria for 20 years.

While Bouteflika has given no timetable for his national conference, he said the shake-up of Algeria’s “political, economic and social systems” would start “in the very near future”.

A constitutional review would be put before a referendum, he said, which would be “a prelude to a new electoral process that will see the election of a new president.”

Protests initially erupted last month after Bouteflika announced his intention to stand for another term, bringing tens of thousands to the streets in the capital Algiers and across the country.

His comments were published shortly after the chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Gaed Salah, said the army should take responsibility for finding a quick solution to its political crisis, in the most overt signal of potential military intervention since demonstrations erupted three weeks ago.

So far, the powerful army has remained in barracks during the demonstrations, with the security forces mainly monitoring mostly peaceful demonstrations in Algiers and other cities.

"The army will remain a fortified fortress for the country," Salah said on state TV. "We should be responsible for finding solutions as soon as possible. There is no problem without solution."

He added "I'm confident the Algerian people are wise and able to overcome all difficulties."

The army has generally wielded power in Algeria behind the scenes, but has intervened publicly during pivotal moments. In the early 1990s, generals cancelled elections which an Islamist party was set to win, triggering almost a decade of civil war that killed some 200,000 people.

‘External dangers’

Bouteflika's concessions last week have brought no halt to the demonstrations, which are expected to continue on Tuesday, Algeria's Independence Day holiday. On Monday, doctors called for mass protests during the celebrations.

The demonstrations have been largely peaceful, with occasional clashes between a minority of stone-throwing young people and police on the sidelines.

Part of the president’s inner circle, he said Algerians “have the abilities necessary to prevent their country from any situation (in which) it could be exploited by hostile foreign parties.”

In a statement, the independent Collective of Algerian Medical Residents (CAMRA) urged medical students to take part and denounce the "ruling gangs".

Protesters are desperate for a new generation of leaders who can tackle the country's pressing problems: a stagnant economy and high unemployment despite vast oil and gas resources.

In another concession, the Ministry of Religious Affairs on Sunday informed clerics that they are no longer required to submit texts of their sermons to authorities for approval. One of the most influential clerics in Algiers expressed his opposition to the government last week.

Authorities have previously warned that the protests risk dragging Algeria into instability, comparing the rallies to those that sparked Syria’s ongoing war.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat and former UN envoy for Syria, on Monday denied references to turmoil in other countries was intended to scare protesters.

“We must be aware of the dangers that exist. Talking about Iraq or Syria is not an attempt to tell the population to hold still... we tell them to go ahead with their open eyes,” he said in a national radio interview.

Brahimi called for structured and organised dialogue to take place as soon as possible.

At the moment, he said, “there’s a blockage, I hope that it’s not a deadlock.”

No let up

Since returning from medical treatment in Switzerland last week, Bouteflika has been losing allies, including senior members of the ruling National Liberation Front party, known by its French acronym FLN.

Bouteflika named a new prime minister last week, but on Monday leaders of 13 independent Algerian labour unions refused to support his efforts to form a cabinet.

"We will not hold discussions with this system, we belong to the people and the people said 'No' to the system," Boualem Amora, a leader of an education union, told reporters.

Newly-appointed Deputy Prime Minister Ramtane Lamamra is expected to start a tour on Tuesday of some of Algeria's main allies abroad to explain the new political roadmap, said a foreign ministry official. The tour will start on Tuesday with a visit to Moscow, Algeria's most important military ally.

It will also include EU countries and China, which has invested billions of dollars in Algeria.