Army chief of staff vows to secure Algeria, prevent bloodshed

Army chief of staff vows to secure Algeria, prevent bloodshed
Algerians have been protesting over the announcement that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was proposing to run for a fifth term. (File/AFP)
Updated 05 March 2019

Army chief of staff vows to secure Algeria, prevent bloodshed

Army chief of staff vows to secure Algeria, prevent bloodshed
  • Algerians have been protesting over President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s proposal to run for a fifth term
  • Algeria's chief of staff says there are parties that want the country to suffer

TUNIS: Algeria’s army will guarantee security and not allow a return to an era of bloodshed, its chief of staff said on Tuesday.

Gaed Salah said there were some parties he did not name which wanted Algeria to return to the “years of pain,” referring civil war in the 90s.

Thousands of Algerian students, meanwhile, marched in protest at ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s determination to stand for re-election, brushing aside his pledge not to serve a full fifth term.

Following mass demonstrations, the veteran leader promised that if he wins the April poll he will organize a “national conference” to set a date for further elections which he would not contest.

But his pledge, made in a letter read out late on Sunday on state television, has been angrily dismissed as an insult by Algerians weary of his two-decade-old rule.

Rallies demanding the 82-year-old resign have rocked Algeria since Feb. 22, with protesters mobilized by calls on social media, in a country where half the population is under 30 and many young people struggle to find jobs.

On Tuesday thousands of university students from campuses across Algiers marched in the capital, many carrying their country’s flag.

Abderahman, a 21-year-old student, said Bouteflika “wants an extra year” in power.  “We don’t want him to stay even an extra second. He should leave now,” he said.

Police deployed across the centre of the capital where protests have been banned since 2001.

The TSA news website reported similar protests in Algeria’s second and third cities, Oran and Constantine, as well as in other towns and cities.

“Hey Bouteflika, there won’t be a fifth term,” the students chanted in central Algiers, a reporter said.

Onlookers applauded them and motorists honked their horns in a show of support.

And in a sign they will not back down from protests calling on the president to resign, the students chanted “bring on the army commandos and the BRI (police rapid response squad).”

“Game over” read one poster. “System - go away”, said another.

The protests appear to lack leadership and organization in a country still dominated by veterans of the 1954-1962 independence war against France, including Bouteflika.

But the unrest still poses the biggest challenge to the ailing leader and the ruling elite made up of the ruling party, businessmen, the military and security services.

Young Algerians who are at the forefront of the protests want a new generation of leaders and have few attachments to the old guard.

After a decade-long insurgency that Bouteflika crushed early in his rule, Algerians generally tolerated a political system that left little room for dissent as a price to pay for relative peace and stability.

But Algeria’s mostly young population are agitating for jobs, better services and an end to rampant corruption in a country that is one of Africa’s largest oil producers.

Bouteflika suffered a stroke in 2013 and is rarely seen in public.

He formally submitted his candidacy for the April 18 poll just before a midnight deadline on Sunday. It was handed in by his campaign manager Abdelghani Zaalane as the president has been in Switzerland since Feb. 24 for what the presidency has described as “routine medical tests.”

In Sunday’s message he said that his pledge not to serve a full term if re-elected “will ensure I am succeeded in undeniable conditions of serenity, freedom and transparency.”

He acknowledged the mostly peaceful protests against him.

“I listened and heard the cry from the hearts of protesters and in particular the thousands of young people who questioned me about the future of our homeland.”

But his words have failed to end the protests against him which first erupted on Feb. 22 and have continued daily, drawing Algerians from all walks of life, including students, lawyers and journalists.

Tuesday’s rallies came in response to calls on social media for students to gather outside the iconic building housing Algiers’ main post office.

“No means no! Hasn’t he understood the message of the people?” asked Selma, who studies mathematics.

“Today we will make it clear for him, and again on Friday,” which has been the main day for protests, she said.

A sign held up by protesters read: “No studies, no teaching until the system (regime) falls,” as students were reportedly considering going on strike.

The sprawling Bab Ezzouar campus of the University of Algiers, just outside the capital, was deserted.

“There is a massive strike by students... I’ve never seen anything like it since the 1980 Berber Spring,” a professor said.

She was referring to a weeks-long uprising demanding cultural rights for Algeria’s Berber community, who long fought for greater recognition for their customs and ancient language overshadowed by Arabic culture.

University professors were meeting to decide if they too should go on strike

And the bar association of lawyers in the city of Bejaia, 180 km east of Algiers, called on its members to follow in the footsteps of their colleagues in Constantine and go on strike.