Algeria looks for Bouteflika's response to huge protests

AFP , Saturday 2 Mar 2019

The Algerian flag with the words written on it that read, “System get out, free Algeria” is held as protesters rally in Paris against the Algerian president’s bid for a fifth term in office, February 24. (Photo: AFP)

Algerians on Saturday watched for the presidency's response to the biggest rallies yet against Abdelaziz Bouteflika's re-election bid, as the ailing and absent head of state turned 82.

Driven by rising frustration, tens of thousands took to the streets on Friday.

Many attempted to march on the seat of government and the presidential palace, but were repelled by police truncheons and volleys of tear gas.

A day after the unrest, state-news agency APS reported Saturday that Bouteflika had replaced his veteran campaign manager, but no immediate explanation was given for the dismissal.

The president himself, who has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke, has remained invisible and mute on the demonstrations since they broke out last week.

His declaration three weeks ago that he would stand for a fifth term came in the shape of a written statement published by state media, rather than a speech to the people.

Adding fuel to concerns about his fitness for office, the president has been in Switzerland for nearly a week undergoing what his office describes as "routine medical checks".


Right to protest

One 56-year-old protester died after being caught in a stampede by "rioters" seeking to confront police, his family said on social media.

AFP journalists saw a number of others wounded, including some by police throwing stones back at demonstrators who had intially hurled them at officers.

According to a police toll, 56 police and seven demonstrators were hurt and 45 arrests made in Algiers.

Interior minister Noureddine Bedoui visited wounded officers on Friday night, saluting what he called "the professionalism of the forces of order".

Bedoui did not mention a Sunday night deadline for presidential hopefuls to formally submit their candidacies for the April 18 election at the constitutional court.

There is no legal requirement for a candidate to be physically present for the lodging of his or her bid for the poll.

Ahead of Friday's demonstrations, the presidential camp had repeated all week that protests would not delay the election or prevent the formal submission of Bouteflika's candidacy.

The authorities are looking "to hold on until Sunday, in the hope that once Bouteflika's candidacy is confirmed, the ballot box will prevail and protests will run out of steam", one observer told AFP.

It is difficult to say whether Friday's events are a game changer.

"It is not within the habit of the regime to give in to streets," added this observer, who did not want to be named.

"If they withdraw the candidacy (of Bouteflika)... how much further would they then be forced to retreat?".



The protests have unfolded peacefully across the country, aside from the clashes between police and young people late on Friday in Algiers.

But there is a disconnect between the formal opposition parties -- which tried and failed to agree on a single candidate -- and the social media savvy of the street movement.

So far, APS says only two little-known challengers have formally submitted their election bids: Ali Zeghdoud from the tiny Algerian Rally part and independent Abdelkrim Hamadi.

Businessman Rachid Nekkaz is one figure to have cultivated a mass following among young people, including on social media.

But he will likely fall foul of electoral laws on nationality, because he once held French citizenship.

Bouteflika's main opponent in 2004 and 2014 was his former prime minister Ali Benflis, who is expected to confirm on Sunday whether he will attempt another run.

Retired general Ali Ghediri threw his hat into the ring in January, but has gone quiet in recent weeks.

Contacted by AFP on Saturday, his camp did not want to say whether he will formally submit his candidacy.

The main Islamist party, the Movement for the Society of Peace, earlier said it will field its candidate Abderrazak Makri, but the candidacy has not been confirmed.

Far-left Workers' Party announced Saturday that it would not field a candidate for the first time since 2004, saying the presidential election could not fulfil "the real desire for change".

Once Sunday's midnight (2300 GMT) deadline passes, the court has ten days to rule on candidates' validity.

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