Bouteflika returns to Algeria as power base erodes

Mounting signs of loss of support by elite, inner circle.
Monday 11/03/2019
Algerian lawyers gather outside the Algiers court house, Monday, March 11, 2019. (AP)
Algerian lawyers gather outside the Algiers court house, Monday, March 11, 2019. (AP)

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned to Algiers after two weeks in Switzerland for medical tests while opposition leaders mulled ideas to replace the long-serving president and his government.

More than 1,000 Algerian judges said they would refuse to oversee the country's election April 18 if Bouteflika persisted in his run for a fifth term, the latest major blow to the regime that has been in power for 20 years.

Activists behind mass demonstrations the past five weeks demanding that Bouteflika withdraw his candidacy called for a "civil disobedience" movement combining protests and a general strike to speed up "regime change."

Bouteflika, 82, suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public since. His decision to run for a new term in the election sparked protests unprecedented since Algeria's independence from France in 1962.

The huge demonstrations led many of Bouteflika’s circles of support to crumble, leaving his core backers scrambling for a way out.

Bouteflika arrived at Boufarik Airport, south of Algiers, March 10 and was shown in a video by private television station Ennahar in a fast-moving convoy heading towards the Algiers suburb of Zeralda. He could be seen inside a car slightly bent over wearing a cap.

Bouteflika resides in Zeralda, rather than the presidential palace in Algiers, for health reasons.

The official Algerian Press Service confirmed that the president had returned to the country "after a private visit to Geneva... during which he underwent periodic medical tests."

Adding a new signal about the consensus to move past Bouteflika's leadership, the ruling National Liberation Front broke its staunch support for the president's re-election and announced it wants a settlement to the crisis "with the least cost to the country."

Algerian Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah moved the military's stance closer to the protesters’, saying, during a March 10 visit to the army's engineering school, that the military and the people "have the same vision of the future."

Thousands of protesters demonstrated in Paris and other French cities. Protests also were reported win neighbouring Rabat, Morocco and Tunis, Tunisia.

Peaceful nationwide protests began in Algeria February 22 to protest Bouteflika's plan to run for a fifth term as president. The movement is seeking a change in the regime that has kept Bouteflika and other veteran nationalist war fighters in power since 1999.

Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Algiers on March 8 in the biggest demonstration yet against Bouteflika. Massive marches took place elsewhere across the country.

The protests took a new turn March 10 with strikes in main commercial hubs, including Rouiba's main manufacturing complex outside Algiers and Bordj Bou Arreridj's industrial belt in the Berber-speaking Kabylie region east of Algiers.

The strikes paralysed the hydrocarbon export hub in Skikda and main container imports port of Bejaia. Many shops were closed in Algiers and other cities.

The shift in the protest movement appeared to worry Algerians as indicated by the sharp decline of the value of the dinar on the main parallel but tolerated market in Algiers as people sought foreign currencies as a hedge against risks of a prolonged crisis.

The dinar exchanged at 244 for $1 at Square Port Said's main currency exchanges, approximately twice the official exchange rate. Algerian newspaper El Khabar said the dinar had never been at such a low rate since independence.

Local media reported that strikes halted sugar and oil production at Cevital and affected sectors at state-owned oil giant Sonatrach, which controls Algeria's oil and gas production and exports.

Cevital is owned by prominent businessmen Issad Rabrab, who marched with the protesters against Bouteflika in Algiers.

Analysts said they expected a solution within few days after Bouteflika's return. Proposals were being discussed between advisers close to the presidency and opposition figures and those outside government.

"The departure of the head of the state, his government and the dissolution of the parliament are the minimal solution to avoid slipping into the spectre of violence," said main secularist opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy party.

Secularist opposition leader Said Saadi talked about ideas being considered to move Algeria onto a "transition period." "The idea is to call on a number of personalities with a minimum level of credibility in the eyes of the public to represent the nation during this period of transition,” he said.

Analysts in Algiers said the main obstacle to a quick resolution of the crisis is to find “representatives" of the protests and associate them with the discussions because most of those behind the protests are sceptical about moves from the government and opposition parties.

Mustapha Bouchachi, a human rights activist who was urged by activists to be their spokesman, said: "Let the society finds its own way for its independent organisations.

"The society had broken the wall of fear and it shall now break the wall of doubt and suspicion about its capabilities to come up with solution. Our youth had displayed maturity and ability to take on the challenges. They have to be careful that their revolution would not be stolen from them,” Bouchachi said.