Skepticism greets president's planned exit in Algeria

AP , Tuesday 2 Apr 2019

File Photo: People protest against Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Algiers, Algeria March 8, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's long-awaited announcement of his departure has fallen flat, as protesters and opposition figures say it doesn't go far enough to satisfy demands for dramatic change to the country's secretive power structure.

Bouteflika bowed to weeks of public protests and announced Monday that he will step down by the end of his term April 28, according to his office. But his opponents fear that will pave the way for a hand-picked successor instead of a truly democratic transfer of power.

Students held protests in central Algiers on Tuesday, and demonstrators are already planning for new nationwide action Friday. Their weekly protests since Feb. 22 have challenged the political status quo and longtime leader Bouteflika, 82, who has rarely been seen in public since he suffered a stroke in 2013.

Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis and moderate Islamist movement MSP are among leading voices criticizing Bouteflika's planned departure as only a first step, fearing that it would leave the distrusted political elite in place.

Benflis, a leading opposition figure who has sought the presidency, also took aim at ``extra-constitutional forces'' he claimed were trying to manipulate the country _ an apparent dig at Bouteflika's influential brother Said.

In a statement Tuesday, Benflis expressed support for the army, in a boost for military chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah. ``There is only one institutional rampart left ... that of our armed forces, with at their sides in solid support, the Algerian people themselves.''

A standoff is intensifying between those backing the powerful army chief and supporters of Bouteflika.

Gaid Salah turned against the president amid mass protests over Bouteflika's 20-year rule, proposing a procedure to have Bouteflika declared unfit for office _ and prompting accusations he was plotting a coup. Gaid Salah kept his position in a new government named Sunday, though it is unclear why.

Bouteflika's office said Monday that the president would take ``important steps'' to ensure the continuity of Algeria's institutions, fueling fears that Bouteflika's entourage is seeking to cement its hold on power.

The Algerian Constitution calls for the head of the upper house of parliament, Bouteflika ally Abdelkader Bensalah, to act as interim leader for a maximum of 90 days while an election is organized.

It remains uncertain what will happen next in Algeria's fast-changing political crisis, which is largely happening behind closed doors.

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