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March 12, 2019 10:04 am

Thousands Press for Quick Change in Algeria After Bouteflika Concessions

avatar by Reuters and Algemeiner Staff

People take part in a protest demanding immediate political change in Algiers, Algeria, March 12, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Zohra Bensemra.

Thousands protested across Algeria on Tuesday, demanding immediate political changes a day after ailing President Abelaziz Bouteflika abandoned his bid for a fifth term in power but stopped short of stepping down.

Huge crowds gathered in several cities and Ennahar TV reported workers began a strike that paralyzed operations at the Mediterranean port at Bejaia.

Bouteflika, 82, bowed to weeks of mass demonstrations against his 20-year-old rule on Monday and promised a transition to a new leadership. But he postponed elections scheduled for April, meaning he will likely remain in power for some time.

Veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and protest groups will join a conference planning Algeria’s future, government and political sources told Reuters on Tuesday.

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Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and UN special envoy who is in his 80s, is expected to chair the conference that will oversee the transition, draft a new constitution and set the date for elections, a government source said.

Crowds who came back onto the streets on Tuesday demanded quicker action, reflecting suspicions that the old guard, adept at manipulating opposition groups, might be seeking to weaken and divide the protest movement.

“The whole system must disappear immediately. Our battle will continue,” 25-year-old student Noureddine Habi said in central Algiers as others chanted: “We want this system to go.”

High unemployment

Algerians have grown tired of Bouteflika and other veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France who have dominated a country with high unemployment, poor services and rampant corruption despite its oil and gas.

“The government has often encouraged the radicalization of popular protests in the past as a ploy to divide and rule, and it knows all the moves,” wrote North Africa expert Hugh Roberts.

More than a quarter of Algerians under 30 are unemployed.

“We do not need Bouteflika to decide on behalf of the people,” said 50-year-old grocer Ahmed Beddine.

Algeria’s deputy prime minister said Boutiflika’s decision was the most important turning point since independence from France, Annahar TV reported.

“A competent government will be established, with the confidence of the participants in the national conference, which will supervise the presidential process,” said Ramtan Lamamra.

Contacts are now underway with war veterans who may take part in the transition, including Djamila Bouhired and Zohra Drif Bitat, two of the most famous guerrilla fighters of the conflict, political sources said.

Seen by Algerians as revolutionary heroines, they were part a network of women who carried explosives in a bombing campaign in 1956 that included an attack on the fashionable Milk Bar cafe depicted in the film “The Battle of Algiers.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said Bouteflika’s statement opened a new chapter and called for a “reasonable duration” to the transition period.

“I think it’s a sign of maturity. We will do everything to accompany Algeria in this transition with friendship and respect.”

Algeria’s powerful military is expected to play a behind-the-scenes role during the transition and is currently considering several civilians as candidates for the presidency and other top positions, political sources said.

One of them includes a prominent lawyer and activist Mustafa Bouchachi, who has gained a wide following on Facebook during the demonstrations.

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