Algerians take to the streets to reject president’s calls for dialogue

Protesters continued their calls for a complete overhaul of the system while the army wants to stick to the constitutional process.
Saturday 08/06/2019
Algerian protesters gather during an anti-government demonstration in the centre of the capital Algiers, Algeria, Friday, June 7, 2019. (AP)
Algerian protesters gather during an anti-government demonstration in the centre of the capital Algiers, Algeria, Friday, June 7, 2019. (AP)

TUNIS - Hundreds of thousands of protesters flocked to the main streets of Algiers and other cities across the country for the sixteenth straight Friday, rejecting the interim president’s calls to engage in dialogue ahead of presidential elections and demanding his ouster. 

Abdelkader Bensalah, who took over from long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after he was toppled early April, called on opposition leaders and civil society figures to take part in an "inclusive dialogue" to help set up elections "as soon as possible.”

Polls scheduled for July 4 were scrapped early this month due to a lack of candidates.

The country's Constitutional Council ruled that elections could not be held on time and extended Bensalah's term – initially due to end July 9 -- until the election of a future president.

Protesters have opposed quick presidential elections, arguing that it takes time for the opposition to mount a serious challenge to a political establishment that has lucrative business connections and has ruled the country for decades.

Protesters taking to the main streets of Algiers continued their calls for a complete political overhaul during Friday protests, shouting "no elections under the rule of the gang" in reference to the ruling elite that has replaced Bouteflika.

"Yetnahou gaa, y'ani yetnahou gaa (They all got to go, and we mean all)" chanted the protesters in the western city of Oran.

Demonstrators in the Berber-speaking city of Bejaia, east of Algiers, shouted "Bensalah go away" and " “no dialogue with those who plundered the country for 20 years.”

Similar slogans were heard during protests in Tizou Ouzou in central Algeria, Annaba and Constantine in the east, Ghilzane in the west and Adrar in the south.

Most demonstrators again took aim at military chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah, a leading political figure who has sought to build a bridge with protesters to ensure a gradual change of leadership.

Algerian analysts warned that postponing the vote while making no political concessions carries risks for Algeria's stability. They said that if Bensalah sets a new date for elections, protests could become more radical.

"The protests will continue with the risks of radicalisation of the demands and the possibility of slipping into violence," said Louisa Ait Hamadouche, a political science teacher at Algiers university.

"But a direct dialogue between protest figures and the military accompanied by concessions, including revising laws related to political parties, individual and collective freedoms to appease the political climate will lead to easing the deadlock.”

Gaid Salah urged the public to respect the electoral process as mandated by the constitution in order to avoid "political adventures and anarchy” associated with transitional systems.

The army command, meanwhile, is thought to be stuck in the crossroads. Its members are eager to retain the support of the public but also worried about the repercussions of neglecting the nation’s constitutional framework.

“The National Popular Army command, which committed itself to backing the demands of the protesters, is caught in a vice between the pressures of the protesters and its national and international commitment to respect the constitution," said former Prime Minister Mokdad Sifi who backs the protesters.

"The army command fears being accused abroad of staging a coup if they intervene to satisfy the demands of the protests outside the constitutional framework with dire diplomatic, economic and security consequences for the country," he added.

Analysts said Bensalah is also reluctant to stray from the constitutional process. In an address on June 6, he said “wisdom and the high interests of the people (must be upheld) in the debate.”

Political analyst Ali Boukhlef said Bensalah is taking his cue from the army command.

Economists have warned that Algeria’s ongoing political deadlock is likely to push the oil-dependent country into a deep economic crisis in the coming years.

 "The foreign currency reserves are now at less than $70 billion, the equivalent of two years of imports,” said former Treasury chief Ali Benouari. “With the increasing needs of our population and the oil prices stabilising, nothing of the reserves will be left at end of 2021.”

"That means Algeria will be pushed to foreign debt to satisfy the economy and the population needs. Algeria will find itself in exactly the same situation as in 1988," he added in reference to the worst economic crisis in the country’s history.