An emerging Algerian opposition group representing a mass protest movement has demanded the embattled president leave office in fewer than six weeks.
But President Abdelaziz Bouteflika insisted on sticking to his longterm schedule before he departs, as he dispatched a key official to Moscow to shore up support.
In a statement issued on Monday night through the official Algerian news agency, Mr Bouteflika defied hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding his immediate departure. His scheme includes a months-long process to create a “national conference” to write up a new constitution, before holding a referendum and then presidential elections.
“This conference’s mission is of a sensitive nature as it will take the decisive decisions necessary to produce the quantum leap our people, and particularly the youth, are calling for,” read the statement, issued on the commemoration of the country’s 1954-1962 war of independence from France. “This qualitative step will be endorsed by a comprehensive and deep revision of the constitution.”
Protesters took to the streets anyway on Tuesday, maintaining their momentum ahead of large protests anticipated for Friday after prayers. On Monday, army chief of staff Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah suggested the country’s powerful armed forces were getting nervous and would possibly intervene.
But the new confederation of opposition activists warned the army – considered one of the most powerful in Africa – should fulfil its duties “without interfering in the political choices of the people.”
“There is an urgent need to make radical changes of the system in place with new personnel,” said the group, the National Coordination for Change, which includes a prominent human rights activist, a former official, Islamists, and other opposition leaders.
Their statement called for Mr Bouteflika, his cabinet and parliament to leave office on 27 April, the day the current term expires. They asked him to hand over power to a “collegial presidency” composed of several national figures who would then appoint a caretaker government.
Meanwhile, the regime appeared to be attempting to ramp up its international support, dispatching new deputy prime minister Ramtane Lamamra to Russia, which counts Algeria as its biggest African weapons customer.
Russia has backed up authoritarian regimes facing popular unrest in Syria and Venezuela, dismissing demands for change as western meddling. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claimed on Tuesday, without providing evidence, that outside powers were attempting to destabilise Algeria.
“We see attempts to undermine the situation, and categorically oppose any interference in these processes,” he was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.
Mr Bouteflika, wheelchair bound and 82 years old, has not publicly spoken since he was debilitated by a stroke in 2013. President since 1999 and a figure within Algeria’s political elite for decades, he now speaks to the public in statements that many Algerians suspect are crafted by an entourage of relatives, advisers and senior officials struggling to maintain their grip on power.
Since protests began last month against him running for a fifth term, Mr Bouteflika and his handlers have sought repeatedly to come up with ways to extend his term by another year. The protesters managed to push him to agree not to stand for a fifth term but many now suspect the manoeuvring is meant to buy time and wait out the protest movement so that he doesn’t have to quit immediately. Meanwhile, the protests only seem to gather steam week after week, drawing in establishment leaders and security officials.
Adding to the mistrust, Mr Bouteflika has promised repeatedly over the years to bring about change, only to renege once public pressure eased. Algerians across the political and economic spectrum have for years been dissatisfied with how the leadership of the oil and gas-rich nation manages the economy and public services.
A series of corruption scandals involving senior officials and international energy companies has further sullied the reputation of the elite, reinforcing the impression that an intertwined network of security officials and business leaders are looting the country.
Mr Bouteflika’s statement said his proposed national conference would allow Algerians to “freely discuss the social and economic future of the country”.
But his words ring hollow to many. His government has attempted to stifle freedom of expression for years, and has shown little inclination to open up the political space. Journalists and bloggers have been repeatedly prosecuted on charges of insulting the president or state officials. A “state of emergency” dating back to the country’s vicious 1990s civil war remains in place, imposing restrictions on freedom of assembly in major cities.