Thousands of demonstrators have protested in the centre of the Algerian capital for a fourth consecutive Friday، as the country’s political elite began distancing themselves from the ailing 82-year-old president، Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Despite a heavy police presence، crowds gathered at Algiers’ Grande Poste square hours before the scheduled start of a demonstration calling on Bouteflika to step down after two decades in power.
The rally was the first major test of whether Bouteflika has calmed anger on the streets with his surprise announcement on Monday that he would not seek a fifth term but was cancelling an April presidential poll to allow for consultation on reforms “for a new generation”. The move followed protests by hundreds of thousands، possibly millions، of people a week ago but was condemned by civil society groups، who said it was intended to “trick and divide the popular movement”.
The almost entirely peaceful demonstrations are the biggest outpouring of dissent seen in Algeria for decades. Bouteflika، who returned from medical treatment in Switzerland on Sunday، stopped short of relinquishing office and has said he will stay on until a new constitution is adopted. In recent days، senior figures in the ruling Front de Liberation Nationale party (FLN) showed signs of turning its back on the veteran politician، one of the generation who came to power following Algeria’s bloody war of independence against France from 1954-62. Hocine Kheldoun، a former ruling party spokesman، said in a TV interview on Thursday night the president was “history now”. Kheldoun – one of the most senior FLN officials to break with Bouteflika publicly – said the FLN had to look forward and support the aims of demonstrators protesting against Bouteflika.
Other key components of the informal coalition of interest groups، cliques and organisations that constitute the Algerian political elite have broken away in recent days، too.
Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. His bid to seek a fifth consecutive five year term sparked the current crisis.
A former minister who is familiar with Bouteflika’s inner circle told Reuters the president could not survive given the pressure building against him. “Game over. Bouteflika has no choice but to quit now،” they said on condition of anonymity. The protest movement has begun to search for representatives who can unite protesters in advance of a national conference and elections.