Protests intensify as deadline for April election looms in Algeria

Hundreds more held rallies at campuses across Algiers, including at the Faculty of Law near the headquarters of the Constitutional Council where candidates must register for the presidential race
Algerian protesters
Protesters hold placards, one of them bearing a portrait of Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and reading in French “Get out. Algeria deserves better”, during a rally against the ailing president’s decision to stand for a fifth term in office, on March 3, 2019, in the French capital Paris. – The confirmation on February 10 that Bouteflika would contest a fifth term sparked a series of protests in the North African country. (Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP)

Hundreds of students took part in new protests Sunday in Algiers and other cities against a fifth term for ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who faced a midnight deadline to register for April elections.

Chanting “Bouteflika go away”, more than 100 students rallied near the main campus of the University of Algiers, in the city centre, cordoned off by police, AFP journalists said.

Hundreds more held rallies at campuses across Algiers, including at the Faculty of Law near the headquarters of the Constitutional Council where candidates must register for the presidential race, a student said.

Rallies inside and outside campuses in the northeastern city of Annaba also drew hundreds of students who chanted “anti-Bouteflika” slogans, a local journalist said on condition of anonymity. 

The TSA news website reported other protests in Algeria’s second and third cities, Oran and Constantine, as well as in Bouira, Skida and Gelma in the east and Tiaret and Mostaganem in the southwest.

Bouteflika’s announcement in February that he would seek another term despite his failing health has unleashed angry protests.

The 82-year-old, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke, has remained silent on the demonstrations since they broke out last month.

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A week ago he flew to Switzerland for what his office described as “routine medical checks”.

On Saturday, he sacked his campaign manager Abdelmalek Sellal, a former prime minister who successfully oversaw Bouteflika’s past three re-election bids, state media said, without giving a reason.

Sellal was removed ahead of a deadline of midnight (2300 GMT) Sunday for contenders to register for the election, and replaced by Transport Minister Abdelghani Zaalene.

There are no legal requirements for candidates to be physically present to submit their bid to the Constitutional Council. In 2014, Bouteflika registered in person.

Sunday, police deployed massively around the council and the road leading to it was blocked.

Protesters to be ‘disappointed’

Retired Algerian army general Ali Ghediri (C) waves as he arrives to submit his candidacy before the constitutional council for the upcoming presidential election, on March 3, 2019. (Photo by RYAD KRAMDI / AFP)

Six candidates have already registered, including prominent retired general Ali Ghediri, who was the first to announce he would run for the presidency calling it a “major challenge” and promising a “change”.

Businessman Rachid Nekkaz, who has cultivated a mass following among young people, said he would follow suit on Sunday afternoon.

An analyst who declined to be identified said Sellal’s sacking could be a tactic to calm the growing protest movement.

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An editorial Sunday in El-Moudjahid newspaper, a mouthpiece of the government, said protesters would be “disappointed” in their campaign to force Bouteflika to pull out of the election race.

The sacking of Sellal came after more than a week of demonstrations by Algerians, including lawyers and students, in several cities, including Algiers where protests have officially been banned since 2001.

The first major protest drew tens of thousands on February 22 with demonstrators chanting “No fifth mandate”.

The scale of the protests has surprised many in Algeria and represents the biggest challenge in years to the authorities.

Tear gas and stones

On Friday, clashes erupted between police and protesters in Algiers as tens of thousands of people took to the streets.

Riot police used tear gas and batons to keep some protesters from marching on the Government Palace which houses the prime minister’s office, AFP reporters said.

According to a police toll, 56 police officers and seven demonstrators were hurt and 45 alleged stone-throwers were arrested in Algiers.

Bouteflika has been in power for two decades, gaining respect from many for his role in ending a civil war in the 1990s that officials say killed nearly 200,000 people.

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Officials have warned that the protests risk dragging Algeria into instability, with the prime minister comparing the rallies to those that sparked Syria’s war. 

Protesters have been mobilised by calls on social media which have resonated with young Algerians, many of whom struggle for employment in a country where half the population is under 30. 

Reporters at state radio have complained that their bosses have imposed a blackout on coverage of the protests, and last week journalists also took to the streets to protest against alleged censorship.


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