ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algeria’s army chief declared that the public has expressed “noble aims” during weeks of demonstrations against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, his strongest signal yet that the military is distancing itself from the long-serving ruler.
FILE PHOTO: People carry national flags and banners during a protest calling on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to quit, in Algiers, Algeria March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina
Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah said the month had been “marked by the deeds of noble aims and pure intentions, through which the Algerian people has clearly expressed its values and principles of sincere and dedicated work to Allah and the motherland”.
The general’s comments, made on Tuesday during a tour of a military district and carried by Algerian media on Wednesday, came as an influential party in the governing coalition publicly turned on Bouteflika and those around him.
Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth term, now abandoned, was “a big mistake,” Seddik Chihab, the spokesman for the party, the National Rally for Democracy, told El Bilad TV.
“Extra constitutional forces have seized power in the past few years and ruled state affairs outside a legal framework.”
Bouteflika, who has ruled for 20 years, bowed to the protesters last week by reversing plans to stand for a fifth term. But he stopped short of stepping down and said he would stay in office until a new constitution is adopted, effectively extending his present term.
His moves have done nothing to placate protesters pushing for a new generation to take over from Bouteflika and other veterans of the 1954-1962 independence war against France who have dominated the country.
RND leader Ahmed Ouyahia, a former prime minister who had close ties to intelligence agencies, switched sides on Sunday, telling followers in a letter that “the people’s demands should be met as soon as possible”.
Leaders have emerged from the protest movement, offering an alternative to Bouteflika’s political roadmap to what he says will be a new Algeria. But they have not yet built up enough momentum to force him to quit or make more concessions.
The military, which wields enormous power from behind the scenes, has remained on the sidelines, and is seen as unlikely to intervene as long as the protests remain peaceful.
Army Chief of Staff Salah was a strong supporter of a fifth term for Bouteflika at the outset but appears to have changed his position. He has distanced the military from the president and expressed sympathy with protesters, while stressing that chaos will not be tolerated.
Another powerful figure, Bouteflika’s younger brother Said, has kept a low profile. The president has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke five years ago, and the protesters say a shadowy circle of aides, including Said, have been ruling the country in his name.
Bouteflika appears to be falling back on a strategy which has worked with the opposition in the past — buying time to search for opportunities to divide and rule.
But that looks less likely to succeed now with so many allies withdrawing support. The Ennahar online news site, which is close to Bouteflika, has suggested that the president would step down once his current term ends on April 28.
Bouteflika survived the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings by using vast oil and natural gas resources to boost state spending, pacifying Algerians who had the same frustrations as in neighboring countries where autocrats were toppled.
Many Algerians accepted heavy-handed rule as the cost of stability after a near decade-long civil war against Islamist insurgents in the 1990s, which Bouteflika was credited with bringing to an end.
But a new generation is desperate for jobs, greater freedoms and a say in how the country is run. Almost 70 percent of Algerians are under 30 years old, and more than a quarter of Algerians below that age are unemployed. The economy is dominated by state-owned firms controlled by the elite under a system that dates to an era of close ties to the Soviet Union.
The protests continued on Tuesday, with thousands of students, university professors and health workers rallying in Algiers calling for Bouteflika to quit.
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Peter Graff