Dubai - There were new calls for protests and strikes in Algeria on Monday, with analysts issuing warnings against President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika’s determination to run for a fifth term, though he vowed to stand down within a year. The anger came after Bouteflika’s campaign filed his official nomination papers for the presidential election on April 18 and the 82-year-old pledged to amend the constitution if re-elected and announce a fresh ballot. He also promised a fairer distribution of the country’s oil wealth. “I have listened and heard the screaming hearts of the protesters and in particular the thousands of youths who alerted me about the future of our nation,” Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999, said in a written statement. He said he would meet “the fundamental demand of the people, which means changing the system.”
Bouteflika has not delivered a speech to his countrymen since suffering a stroke in 2013. He is believed to currently be in a hospital in Geneva; his health condition is a closely guarded secret.
The country’s vast energy resources have helped the government institute wide-ranging subsidies but with energy prices down, this has had an adverse impact on the economy, greatly raising Algeria’s public and trade deficit. In Algeria today, the youth account for 60 per cent of the population, and youth unemployment runs at a whopping 29 per cent. Most are frustrated with the shadowy ruling elite, known inside the country simply as ‘le pouvoir’ or ‘the powers’. This elite is made of men from the National Liberation Front (FLN), military generals, and their allies in the business world. ‘Le pouvoir’ are known to jealously guard the status quo, and are also fiercely resistant to any outside intervention in Algeria’s domestic politics. They have coalesced around revolutionary slogans, anti-Islamism, and also a sense of shared destiny.
Walid Namane, an analyst at Control Risks in Dubai, told Gulf News that with the current level of political unrest, the government seems to be committed to maintaining Bouteflika’s candidacy. “Nevertheless, if the protests escalate to widespread violent clashes with the security forces, and reach a tipping point that could undermine the stability of the country, it is likely that the main civilian and military stakeholders could ask the president to withdraw his candidacy or order the constitutional council to reject his candidacy file.”
Students boycotted classes on Monday. “We are not going to study, this is a decision we have taken yesterday,” Amina, a 21-year-old student, told Reuters. “Together we are the world and the system is nothing,” a said a message posted by activists on social media.
Dr Dalia Ghanem, Resident Scholar at Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said that for Algerians, a fifth term for Bouteflika is a “big no”. “If his candidacy is not withdrawn, the street will not calm down. We might see that the government may decide it is not going to turn a blind eye to the people – but without radically changing the system. Or, in the worse case scenario, it might turn a blind eye to the demands of the protesters. I am scared of the reaction of troops [in this scenario],” she told Gulf News.
“Algerians are realistic. They want to get rid of Bouteflika. They want [at least] the facade to change. They see his decision to run for a fifth term as a slap to their dignity.” The situation between protesters and the government led by Bouteflika has now become a standoff. “The decision to file nomination papers was terrible. We don’t know [what the future entails].”