More than 1,000 judges said they would refuse to oversee Algeria’s election if President Abdelaziz Bouteflika contests it, and clerics defied any state role in their work, in a double rebuff to an ailing leader fighting for his political survival.
Bouteflika, who returned to Algeria on Sunday after medical treatment in Switzerland, has watched one long-time ally after another join mass demonstrations calling on him to step down.
Now in their third week, the protests have seen Algerians desperate for jobs and angry about unemployment and corruption demonstrate in towns across around the vast North African country against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office.
The marches have shattered years of political inertia and unsettled Algeria’s opaque but powerful security establishment.
In a statement, the judges added their voice to the protests by announcing the formation of a new association “to restore the gift of justice”.
“We announce our intention to abstain from ... supervising the election process against the will of the people, which is the only source of power,” the judges said in a statement.
The statement drew a sharp retort from Algerian Justice Minister Tayeb Louh, a member of Bouteflika’s inner circle, who said judges should remain neutral.
“The independence and integrity of the judge must be consistent whatever the reasons,” Ennahar TV quoted him as saying.
In another setback for the president, who plans to stand in elections in April, clerics told the minister of religious affairs to stop pressuring them to issue pro-government sermons.
“Leave us to do our job, do not interfere,” cleric Imam Djamel Ghoul, leader of an independent group of clerics, said in remarks to reporters.
The 82-year-old Bouteflika faces the toughest fight of his 20-year-old rule, following a tenure in which he became the north African country’s most powerful president in 30 years.
The secretive military-based establishment known to Algerians as “le pouvoir” (the powers-that-be) appears to have stood aside while the demonstrations have taken place.
“Bouteflika is back, we delivered a message, we need a response, and we need a response now,” pharmacist Mouloud Mohamed, 29, told Reuters.
In Algiers, tens of unionists staged a protest rally outside the headquarters of the main union, UGTA, calling on its leader Abdelmadjid Sidi Said, a Bouteflika ally, to resign.
No Clear Replacement
The veteran head of state has rarely been seen in public since a stroke in 2013. Last April, he appeared in Algiers in a wheelchair.
In the clearest indication yet that the army is seeking to put some distance between itself and Bouteflika, the chief of staff said the military and the people had a united vision of the future, state TV reported. Lieutenant General Gaed Salah did not mention the unrest.
His ruling FLN party urged all sides to work together to end the crisis and promote national reconciliation, Ennahar TV said. But some of its members have quit and joined ranks with demonstrators.
Even if Bouteflika is forced from office, there is no clear replacement, raising the strong possibility that the ruling elite will maintain their grip.
Political sources say that if he caves in to the demonstrators’ demands, several parties including the military, war veterans and members of the opposition would need to build consensus on a way forward to secure an orderly transition.
The process could also include prominent protesters.
For years, rumors have swirled about potential successors, but no one credible has emerged who has the backing of the army and the elite and is not at least 70.
“The end of the reign of the outgoing president is over. It is just a matter of time,” said Louisa Ait Idriss, a university professor and prominent political analyst.
“The challenge is to end Bouteflika without having another Bouteflika.”
The protests come four years after Bouteflika consolidated his position by dismissing military intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene, a rival once seen as Algeria’s “Kingmaker”, a move many expected would allow the president to step aside for an ally.
Bouteflika’s dismissal of the general was the culmination of a struggle to impose his authority on military intelligence, a leading player in the civil war of the 1990s, and make the presidency the true center of national power.