Algeria protests: President Bouteflika promises not to run for fifth term, but vows to remain in power

Unclear whether new plan meant to transfer power or buy time to keep control 

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Monday 11 March 2019 21:56 GMT
Largest anti-government protests in decades across Algeria

Algeria’s embattled and ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced in a dramatic statement that he would not run for a fifth term and would postpone presidential elections to a later date while the country sorted out its next steps, creating a hazy interim period where he would remain in charge.

“I undertake, if God grants me life and help, to hand over the offices and prerogative of the president of the republic to a successor freely elected by the Algerian people,” he was quoted as saying in a statement that was met by cheers among thousands of demonstrators demanding his resignation for weeks. “There will be no fifth term,” he said, citing his health and his age, but vowing to help shape a “new Algerian system”.

The 82-year-old has not made a notable speech or more than a few public appearances since 2013, when he suffered a massive stroke. The wheelchair-bound Mr Bouteflika had been seeking medical care for weeks in Geneva, returning late Sunday, the first day of the Algerian work week, as calls for a general strike were being heeded.

His statement appeared designed to meet the demands of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protesting for weeks against his extending his 20-year rule.

But if embraced by the public and the young protesters demanding his departure, Mr Bouteflika’s plan also carves out breathing space for him and his loyalists to tighten their grip on power, regain control of the streets, and muzzle a press that has been giving sympathetic attention to the peaceful demonstrations.

It remains unclear if Algerians will see the plan as a genuine attempt to hand over power, or yet another scheme to buy more time and prevent a gathering storm of labour strikes that could cripple the regime and further limit its options. If accepted by protesters, it could at least give authorities time to settle on an successor to Mr Bouteflika within rival business, security, and regional networks that make up Algeria’s elite

Though the protesters have demanded Mr Bouteflika not run for a fifth term and a postponement of the elections, constitutional changes were not among their top requests.

Facing discontent around the time of the Arab Spring uprisings, Mr Bouteflika had promised to rewrite the constitution and hand over power to the youth, only to backtrack. He used similar rhetoric about the youth in his latest missive.

“I give up on a fifth term, but I’ll instead do a fourth term of 10 years,” said a political cartoon sketched by the caricaturist Dilem Ali.

The statement said an “inclusive” and “independent” national commission will draw up a national charter by the end of this year, and submit a new constitution to a popular referendum afterward.

But no exact timeline was specified for any of it.The drawing up of a new constitution will take months and ratification of the charter via a referendum could take more time.

Algeria’s wily leadership figures could calculate that such a period would give them time to let the steam run out of the protest movement, or even the opportunity to create a crisis that would allow Mr Bouteflika and his adherents to continue ruling and cutting lucrative energy deals unfettered by a protest movement.

“That he announced that elections will be postponed and that he will dissolve the government means that he will stay in power beyond his term,” Lina Khatib, Middle East and North Africa chief at Chatham House, told The Independent. “It’s a game so he can be de facto president and indefinitely delay prospects for change.”

Before Friday’s massive protests, Mr Bouteflika had offered to run for president and serve for a year before handing over power, a gesture rejected by protesters. The latest offer appears to be a repackaging of that same offer, minus the elections on 18 April.

It remained unclear how gathering a bunch of politicians and jurists to begin the painstaking process of rewriting the constitution could resolve any of Algeria’s problems, which include corruption, a stagnant hydrocarbon dependent economy that fails to provide jobs for young people yearning to flee for opportunities abroad.

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Mr Bouteflika also announced a cabinet reshuffle, appointing Noureddine Bedoui as prime minister and asking him to form a new cabinet to replace one led by Ahmed Ouyahia, in another frequent move used by authoritarian Arab regimes to address discontent.

He also fired the president of the Independent High Authority for the Elections and its members and promised the creation of a new independent election commission as demanded by opposition parties.

But his statement gave no indication that he would relinquish or hand over power during the transition period, instead vowing that he would oversee the process of handing over power that he has designed to ensure its “full success” while overseeing the government.

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