Algerians take part in a demonstration in Algiers against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Tuesday. (Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty Images)
An emerging coalition of Algerian opposition figures Tuesday rejected President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to remain in office while overseeing a political transition from his 20-year rule, echoing the demands of street protesters that he step down next month.
The group also urged the military to stay out of any political handover and not repeat the mistakes of other Arab countries where armies stepped in to take control, often violently, as longtime rulers were ousted during the Arab Spring protests of 2011.
The opposition figures’ call for the president to step down came as Bouteflika and his allies were trying to steady themselves following a month of massive street protests, sparked by his announcement he would seek a fifth term in office.
Last week, Bouteflika, 82, said he would drop his reelection bid and postponed elections set for April 18. That move unleashed a wave of euphoria throughout the country that has since turned into a renewed round of street protests demanding he leave immediately.
He confirmed in a statement carried on state media Monday that he intended to remain in office beyond the end of his current term on April 27, while suggesting he would spearhead political, constitutional and economic reforms before handing over power to a newly elected president at a yet unknown date.
The plan received an important boost from Russia on Tuesday, when Algeria’s newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Ramtane Lamamra met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. Russia is one of Algeria’s closest allies and biggest arms suppliers.
Lavrov said Russia was concerned by the protests and suggested they were the result of interference by foreign nations that he did not name, according to the Reuters news agency. Lavrov endorsed the plan detailed by Lamamra that would see presidential elections held after a new constitution is ratified.
But thousands of Algerians, civil society groups, trade unions and professional associations have already rejected Bouteflika’s proposal and begun to organize around a coalition of prominent opposition figures.
Calling itself the National Coordination for Change, the group is composed of a range of Bouteflika critics, including prominent human rights activists and lawyers, a former government minister and members of a banned Islamist party. They have demanded that Bouteflika, his cabinet and Parliament step down when the president’s term expires, then hand over power to a temporary presidential council that will establish a “Government of National Salvation” to manage the day-to-day affairs of the state.
“There is an urgent need to make radical changes of the system in place with new personnel,” the group said in a statement released Tuesday. It amplified the central themes of the street protests, including frustrations with high youth employment, corruption and an economy battered by low oil prices.
The statement also expressed a deep distrust of Bouteflika’s ruling clique, which includes relatives and business elites backed by the nation’s powerful military.
During nearly a month of large and peaceful protests in the capital of Algiers and other major cities, the military has stayed out of the fray — but Monday signaled its unease at the continuing demonstrations and suggested it could intervene. Army chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, a member of Bouteflika’s inner circle, called for a “quick” solution to what he termed a “political crisis.” Leaders of Algeria’s protest movement understood his statement to mean that the military is prepared to step in.
In its statement, the National Coordination for Change said Algeria’s military and security services should “ensure their constitutional missions without interfering in the political choices of the people.
”Algeria’s military has asserted its power from behind the scenes in recent years, but it has previously intervened directly in politics, with bloody results. In the 1990s, the armed forces canceled a national election that Islamists were expected to win, sparking nearly a decade-long civil war that killed as many as 200,000 people.
Bouteflika came to power as the war ended in 1999, building a durable regime that relied on strict control by the nation’s security and intelligence services and tightly controlled political participation by opposition political movements.Questions over Bouteflika’s fitness to continue in office began six years ago, when he suffered a stroke and has used a wheelchair. He has largely remained out of public view since then.