ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) – Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika bowed to unprecedented public protests Monday and promised not to seek a fifth term after 20 years in power.
In a letter to the nation released by state news agency APS, the ailing leader also said the presidential election scheduled for April 18 would be postponed. He promised to establish a panel to plan a rescheduled vote. Bouteflika, who is 82, has barely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke. His decision to run again set off protests in February and have expanded to include broader complaints about corruption and heavy-handed security policies. The president returned Sunday from two weeks in a Geneva hospital, but his health problems and overall condition remain unclear.
Celebrations popped up instead of protests on the streets of the capital, Algiers, at the news the president had dropped his re-election bid. Car horns rang out while people waved Algerian flags and sang the national anthem. Bouteflika did not give a date or timeline for the delayed election. He said in his Monday letter that the “national conference” he would task with planning the vote also would be responsible for drafting a new constitution for Algeria. He said he would name an interim government as well. The changes were put in motion within hours.
Noureddine Bedoui, a Bouteflika loyalist and the current interior minister, was made prime minister and charged with forming the new administration, according to Algerian state news agency APS. Critics fear the moves could pave the way for the president to install a hand-picked successor. A wily political survivor, Bouteflika fought in Algeria’s independence war against French forces and has played a role in Algeria’s major developments for the past half-century.
He became president in 1999 and reconciled a nation riven by a deadly Islamic insurgency, but questions swirl over whether he is really running the country today. The recent protests surprised Algeria’s opaque leadership and freed the country’s people, long fearful of a watchful security apparatus, to openly criticize the president. Algerians also expressed anger over corruption that put their country’s oil and gas riches in the hands of a few while millions of young people struggle to find jobs. The unprecedented citizens’ revolt drew millions into the streets of cities across the country to demand that Bouteflika abandon his candidacy.
On Monday, Algerian teenagers and lawyers held protests, and workers held scattered walkouts, as the tense nation waited to see what concessions Bouteflika would give, if any. His capitulation on a re-election bid likely will assuage some concerns. Security was high Monday in the capital of Algiers, where some businesses were shuttered by a second day of strikes. Other stores and administrative offices remained open.
Middle school and high school students held protests in several towns, according to local media. Education Minister Nouria Bengahbrit appealed on her Facebook page for protesters to “leave schools out of political turbulence” shaking the country. Meanwhile, lawyers in black robes gathered in front of courthouses to join calls for Bouteflika to abandon his bid for re-election. Some judges joined a lawyers’ protest in the city of Bedjaia. Judges are normally banned from publicly demonstrating, as are police officers and soldiers