Algerians keep up protests amid calls on army chief to quit

Daily street protests were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, driving concerns that escalating tensions could deter credible candidates from taking part in elections scheduled for July 4.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Patience running thin. A protester gestures to police officers during clashes at a demonstration against the country’s leadership in Algiers, April 12. (AP)
Patience running thin. A protester gestures to police officers during clashes at a demonstration against the country’s leadership in Algiers, April 12. (AP)

TUNIS - Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in Algiers and other main cities for an eighth successive Friday on April 12, reiterating their demands that former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s aides relinquish power.

Demonstrators called for the ouster of the country’s interim leader, Abdelkader Bensalah, who replaced Bouteflika about two weeks ago, and the entire ruling elite.

For the first time, authorities seemed ready to use heavy force against demonstrators as protest leaders called on the powerful army chief to quit.

Authorities deployed US-manufactured anti-riot vehicles, which human rights activists described as “lethal” means. Police squads also briefly occupied La Grande Poste — a central point of protests in Algiers — an indication they were prepared to close the area off to protests in the future.

Daily street protests were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, driving concerns among the country’s leaders that escalating tensions could deter credible candidates from taking part in presidential elections scheduled for July 4 that could end the crisis.

“Allah Allah ya baba jinaa anahiyou al Isaaba” (We come to remove the gang) chanted protesters in Algiers, a reference to Bensalah. The “gang” also includes Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, whose government will organise the elections, and the head of the Constitutional Council, Tayeb Belaiz, who will validate the results.

“No to Bensalah,” “No to the gang” were the main slogans held up by protesters in Algiers and other cities, including Annaba and Constantine in the east, Oran and Tlemcen in the west, Bejaia, Bouira and Tizi Ouzou in the centre and Tamanrasset and Adrar in the south.

Bedoui, who served as interior minister until Bouteflika appointed him prime minister on March 11, has promised an independent electoral commission to oversee the elections.

As authorities deployed more police and paramilitary troops than on previous Fridays in Algiers, protesters frantically repeated “Silmiya, Silmiya” (peaceful, peaceful), “Police, Chaab Khawaa, Khawaa) (Police, people are brothers) and “Djeich, Chaab Khawaa, Khawaa) (the Army and the people are brothers).

But the protesters and their leaders also pressured the army and its chief to dismiss Bensalah, Bedoui and Belaiz.

“Ya Djeich Bladi ya Assass, al Herak houwa al assass,” (The army of my homeland, the protests are the basis) chanted protesters while others waved signs reading, “The people is the source of power and the army must oblige.”

Demonstrators and their leaders argue polls cannot be free and fair if they are held under the same judicial framework, institutions and personnel that existed during Bouteflika’s regime.

Bensalah, however, has received the implicit support of the army, whose chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah was instrumental to ousting Bouteflika April 2.

Gaid Salah has defended Algeria’s existing institutions and said protesters’ demands to sweep away the whole ruling elite are “unrealistic.”

“With the beginning of this new stage and the continuing protests, we have unfortunately witnessed attempts of foreign parties with their known historical background towards our country pushing some people to the front in order to impose them as representatives of the people and leaders of the transition so to execute their plans aimed at undermining stability and sowing strife,” said Gaid Salah.

Here he seemed to refer to former colonial power France, which exerts significant political and cultural influence and maintains vast economic and strategic interests in Algeria.

Gaid Salah said the unnamed France-backed activists are pushing for “demands that are not possible to satisfy in order to create a constitutional vacuum.”

The army chief and other officials hope that holding elections within three months — as stipulated under the constitution — will ensure the continuity of state institutions and maintain stability.

But protesters fear a quick turnaround will only resuscitate Bouteflika’s regime despite the ailing leader’s ouster.

“The point of contention between the street and the army is the way to manage the transition,” said political writer Makhlouf Mehenni. “The people do not trust the Three Bs, who are in their positions only because of their loyalty to Bouteflika. The army has its hands tied by the constitution stipulating the Three Bs play their roles in this transition.”

“Gaid Salah is driving home the message that firing the Three Bs and others will empty the state institutions and create a vacuum with severe consequences for stability,” he argued.

Lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi dismissed the Gaid Salah-backed transition plan.

“Political ethics and simple ethics require that the three men have no role in the transition. Ethics require them to leave immediately,” he said.

“These men had been workers of the ex-president Bouteflika and later of the gang around him,” he added.

Protest leaders and opposition figures want Gaid Salah, 79, to quit too.

“General Gaid Salah, it is time for you to leave because you are old and the regime you had backed has failed,” said main secularist opposition figure Said Saadi.

“The question is not whether you should quit or not but how and when this will happen,” he added.

“What is taking place in Algeria is a global event. You must see that new and inevitable horizons and prospects are opening up for the country,” he said.

Independence war veteran Louisette Ighilahriz, 82, also took to the streets and called on Gaid Salah to quit.

“He must leave. He has become threatening towards the protesters in a break with his smooth and honeyed words and statements in recent weeks,” she said.

The shift in discourse coincided with mounting tensions on the streets.

At Audin Square, a centre of weekly protests near Algiers university, some protesters threw rocks and bottles at police for the first time, with police responding with tear gas and later with what appeared to be rubber bullets.

Police repeatedly used water cannons on huge crowds as they headed towards La Grande Poste, which has become symbolic for the movement.