ALGIERS: Algerians have expressed “noble aims,” the country’s army chief of staff said, as President Abdelaziz Bouteflika faced growing pressure from protesters to step down.
The comments by Lt. Gen. Ahmed Gaed Salah, cited by Algerian media, were the strongest indication yet that the military is distancing itself from the ailing president.
Meanwhile an influential Algerian party that was a long-time supporter of Bouteflika has criticized the ailing president for seeking to stay in power, another setback for the ruling elite in the face of mass demonstrations.
The National Rally for Democracy (RND), a member of the ruling coalition, has joined ruling party officials, unions and business tycoons who have abandoned Bouteflika in recent days, after nearly a month of street demonstrations protests.
“The candidacy of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a new term was a big mistake,” RND spokesman Seddik Chihab 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 halt demonstrations, which peaked on Friday with hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Algiers and have continued into this week.
RND leader Ahmed Ouyahia, a former prime minister who had close ties to intelligence agencies, has also switched sides. “The people’s demands should be met as soon as possible,” he told followers in a letter on Sunday.
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 built up enough momentum to force the president to quit or make more concessions.
The military, which wields enormous power from behind the scenes, has remained on the sidelines.
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.
The protests continued on Tuesday, with students, university professors and health workers rallying in Algiers calling for Bouteflika to quit.
A new group headed by activists and opposition figures told the army not to interfere.
In the first direct public message to the generals from leaders emerging from the protests, the National Coordination for Change said the military should “play its constitutional role without interfering in the people’s choice.”