Widening protests in Algeria over Bouteflika’s re-election bid

There is concern that protests “could be manipulated by activists of the former FIS,” the Islamic Salvation Front, which was banned by the military-backed authorities in 1992.
Sunday 24/02/2019
Growing rejection. Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to denounce President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in Algiers, February 22. 	   (AP)
Growing rejection. Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to denounce President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in Algiers, February 22. (AP)

Tunis - Algerians are increasingly taking to the streets to express their opposition to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid to seek a fifth term in office.

The latest wave of demonstrations took place February 22 in the capital Algiers and in a number of other cities including Oran, Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia, Annaba and Setif.

Riot police used tear gas to disperse crowds.

“No to Bouteflika and no to Said,” crowds shouted downtown Algiers. They were referring to the Algerian president and his brother Said, a presidential adviser.

The demonstrators were not dissuaded by mosque preachers who warned of the possibility of violence.

Algerian military chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah cut short a trip to the United Arab Emirates as protests against a possible fifth term for Bouteflika spread from traditional opposition strongholds to other cities.

Gaid Salah warned that “enemies from within” were attempting to disrupt the process before the April 18 presidential election.

Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui cautioned against street protests, saying “the sheer force of the state institutions will be brought to bear against those threatening the country’s stability.”

Increasing street demonstrations, particularly among young Algerians, are fuelling concerns about violent unrest.

Bouteflika, who turns 82 on March 2, has suffered from a series of health problems, including a stroke that left him confined to a wheelchair in 2013. He has rarely been since in public since. Bouteflika will travel to Switzerland February 24 for “routine medical checks,” his office said.

Bouteflika last appeared in public November 1 during a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial service for Algerian independence fighters. He looked frail as he struggled to observe rituals during the recitation of the opening verse of the Quran.

“Of course, I am no longer the same physical force as before — something that I have never hidden from the people,” Bouteflika said in a written message to the nation backing his re-election, “but the unwavering desire to serve… has never left me and it allows me to transcend the constraints linked to health troubles which everyone may one day face.”

Bouteflika’s campaign chief Abdelmalek Sellal, a former prime minister, warned that the protests could easily get out of control.

“The situation could slip out of control before the fateful date of April 18,” said political writer Mourad Slimani. “The experience of past unrest showed that controlling tensions is unpredictable since the authorities are going blindly ahead with the fifth mandate.”

Protests also broke out February 22, especially in villages and towns in the Berber-speaking Bejaia region, where the separatist Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie is strong, Algerian media reported.

“No to the fifth mandate. No to the shame and humiliation,” many shouted during the protests.

“You are playing with the fire by putting Algeria in such hell,” read one sign.

A pamphlet against Bouteflika’s fifth term handed out by protesters warned against radical Islamists bent on fomenting violence.

“People are losing patience with the situation and people will not accept the fifth mandate and the likelihood of the tensions slipping to violence is very high,” read the pamphlet. “That’s why you should ignore the voices in London who currently call on Algerians to take to the streets and confront the regime without attention to the consequences.”

Many Islamist leaders from Algeria took refuge abroad after the Algerian military defeated extremists in the civil war.

An estimated 200,000 Algerians lost their lives in the 1991-2002 civil war, which Bouteflika has called “the national tragedy.”

Those memories of violence had made many Algerians reluctant to take to the streets to challenge Bouteflika’s government until recently. 

But about 25% of Algerians under thirty are unemployment in the oil and gas-rich country. Many of them have no recollection of the fight for independence or the “black decade” of the 1990s.

Concerns over stability drove most opposition leaders and independent figures opposing Bouteflika’s re-election to stay away from a meeting organised by Islamist leaders February 20 in Algiers to forge a consensus around a common opposition presidential candidate.

There is concern that protests “could be manipulated by activists of the former FIS,” said political writer Hassan Saadoun. FIS is the French acronym of the Islamic Salvation Front, which was banned by the military-backed authorities in 1992.

Many FIS members joined the Islamist insurgency.

Rachid Nekkaz, a French-Algerian businessman who hopes to draw support for a presidential bid, has gained a following, particularly among disillusioned youth. He does not belong to a party and rarely visits Algeria. He returned to Algeria to raise support after a 5-year absence.

Many Algerians doubt his credibility due to his history of spurious claims. He caused confusion when he announced — wrongly — “the death of Bouteflika” last September.

He has repeatedly said that if Algeria “were to be freed from a mafia of 49 thieves,” everything would quickly change.

On February 19, supporters joined Nekkaz in forcing open the door of the municipal headquarters of Kenchla after the mayor shut it to prevent people from signing papers backing Nekkaz’s candidacy.

Protesters tore a huge portrait hanging on the municipality’s outside facade while keeping the Algerian flag alongside it in place.

About 10,000 people joined Nekkaz in Constantine on February 22, with many repeating slogans against Bouteflika’s fifth term in office, Algerian newspaper El Watan reported.