TUNIS, Tunisia — Beleaguered Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has announced that he will extend his fourth term in office while sweeping changes are made to the country's constitution.
Announcing the news on Monday evening, Bouteflika is reported to have said, "There will be no fifth term." The president added, "There was never any question of it for me. Given my state of health and age, my last duty toward the Algerian people was always contributing to the foundation of a new republic."
News of the extension, essentially a partial reworking of his March 3 offer of only serving a limited term while overseeing reform, has angered many Algerians, with #Leave_means_leave trending on Twitter within hours of his initial announcement.
Protests have gripped the country, paralyzing many of its major cities since Bouteflika's fifth run for the presidency was announced in February.
Though gathering hundreds of thousands of protesters, the demonstrations have been marked by their peaceful nature, with the occasional clash with police largely amounting to little more than crowd control.
However, as popular momentum has built, neither side has shown itself willing to compromise beyond the extent of Bouteflika's March 3 letter.
On March 11, over 1,000 judges declared that they will not oversee the vote should elections proceed with Bouteflika’s participation. On the ground, demonstrators initiated a general strike across the country, lasting for the remainder of the week should that be required. “You have a date with history,” the national syndicate for electricity and gas workers, which represents employees of the national gas company Sonelgaz, said in a statement, as it declared its intention to fall in behind the strikers. “Now is the time for all free workers to participate in this movement,” it added.
On March 7, a statement attributed to the president praised the peaceful nature of the protests but urged “vigilance and caution against any possible infiltration of misleading parties, either internal or external, in this peaceful expression. Such parties may cause discord and provoke chaos … they may trigger crises and woes,” before cautioning against a return to the “dark decade” of the 1990s, which saw the country ripped apart by a brutal civil war.
Nevertheless, along routes lined by riot police and equipped with water cannons and helicopters circling overhead, protesters of all ages and classes took to the streets, calling upon the president to honor the spirit, if not the letter, of the two-term presidential limit he initially lifted in 2008 — allowing him to run for a third term — before reimposing it in 2016, theoretically paving the way for a stay in El Mouradia Palace stretching till 2024.
Many had doubted that Bouteflika’s health would even support a fifth term. The president has rarely appeared in public since he was paralyzed by a devastating stroke in 2013, with many believing his power is being exercised through his brother Said and operating in concert with a shadowy cabal of army officers, security officials, industrialists and trade unionists.
Within Algiers, few appeared willing to even consider the limited concessions offered in early March. “The proposal is ridiculous because they are just trying to make time to find a plan,” a spokesperson for the youth-led “No to a Fifth Term” told Al-Monitor, before rejecting the notion that any further poll would take place ahead of the next electoral round in five years.
In the two decades Bouteflika and his immediate circle have been in power, the spokesperson said, “this system has only excelled in filling its pockets.”
Current concerns notwithstanding, Bouteflika’s extended stay within the presidential palace has seen him transform the office of the presidency, imbuing it with enough power to offer any successor the ability to challenge the office’s traditional support networks. “So many of the high-ranking politicians are tainted by allegations of corruption and scandal in one way or another," Jessica Northey of Coventry University told Al-Monitor. Northey added, “There’s very little consensus, so it’s hard to imagine anyone coming forward. This must be an incredibly tense time for them and the FLN [National Liberation Front].”
“In my experience, there’s a whole new generation of politicians and civil society activists coming forward. But at the top, nothing’s moving. It’s still this old generation of freedom fighters, [from the 1962 War of Independence],” she added.
On March 8, several members of the FLN resigned from the party in apparent sympathy with the protesters, one of the first signs of cracks beginning to form within a ruling elite whose surface typically remains untroubled by the tides of popular currents.
Elsewhere, some of the better-known candidates in April’s poll, including former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, the Islamist Abderrazak Makri and the leftist Louisa Hanoune, have dropped out of the election and joined the protesters.
“For days, Algeria has been witnessing an unprecedented peaceful revolutionary situation led only by the people,” wrote lawyer Mokrane Ait Larbi, the retiring campaign manager for independent presidential candidate Ali Ghediri.
"It would not be possible at this historic crossroads to achieve a breakthrough via elections,” he said in a press release.
But such rhetoric meant little to the people who crowded the country's streets in the hundreds of thousands over the weekend. “Really, people are just looking for the rule of law," Northey said. "They just want the government to respect the [Algerian] Constitution they spent years writing. It’s hardly surprising that they’ve lost confidence in Bouteflika. Not just because he’s so ill or that they hardly ever see him, but because the constitution keeps getting amended to keep him in power.”
“Algeria has the capacity to do incredible things. Take a look at the current protests — there’s no factionalism, there’s no Islamist presence, there’s no regional rivalry. Women are at the forefront of the movement. All they’re really calling for is the rule of law and that they and the constitution be respected,” she added.