Algerian students, medics protest against 'dinosaur' Bouteflika


Algiers (AFP)

Tens of thousands of students again took to the streets of the Algerian capital on Tuesday, just hours after long-time leader President Abdelaziz Bouteflika confirmed he plans to stay in power after his mandate expires next month.

"Students are committed, the system must go!" they shouted, as students from several campuses in Algiers massed in the city centre.

They were joined by university professors and medical professionals for the rally on the day which marks the anniversary of Algeria's victory in its war of independence.

"March 19, 1962: end of the Algerian war... March 19, 2019: beginning of a system change," read one sign -- referring to the Evian accords that brought an end to French colonial rule 57 years ago.

But Bouteflika, who has ruled Algeria for 20 years, again defied demands that he should quit, and confirmed on Monday that he will stay on beyond the end of his term of office next month.

After weeks of protests, he announced on March 11 he was withdrawing from his bid for a fifth term in planned April elections.

His comments initially sparked elation among protesters before they realised he intended to remain in office regardless.

The ailing 82-year-old also scrapped the election set for April 18 and announced he was rolling out reforms through a "national conference".

Rarely seen in public since a 2013 stroke, Bouteflika issued a fresh statement on Monday which confirmed his new plan would see him stay in power after his term ends on April 28.

"(I hope) that Algeria experiences, in the near future, a harmonious transition and assists handing over the reins to a new generation," he said in the statement.

"This is the ultimate goal that I have committed to making a reality before the end of my presidential journey, at your side and at your service," added Bouteflika.

- 'Make like the dinosaurs' -

While Bouteflika has given no timetable for his national conference, he said the shake-up of Algeria's "political, economic and social systems" would start "in the very near future".

A constitutional review would be put before a referendum, he said, which would be "a prelude to a new electoral process that will see the election of a new president."

Protests initially erupted last month after Bouteflika announced his intention to stand for a fifth term, bringing tens of thousands to the streets in the north African country.

Last week, for a fourth consecutive Friday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched across the country stepping up demands for Bouteflika to go.

Despite the president's reform pledges, Algerians have continued marching in huge numbers, many clutching humorous banners and waving their country's flags amid a festival atmosphere.

"Make like the dinosaurs, and disappear!" read one banner on Tuesday, or "Geologists are hoping for the mass extinction of the government."

The Algerian press also gave short shrift to Bouteflika's latest letter to the people.

"It's more than just stubbornness, it's dangerous irresponsibility," said one opinion writer in the French-language daily Liberte.

"Bouteflika has not met the demands of the people," added the Arabic daily El Khabar.

New Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, named on March 11 to replace the unpopular Ahmed Ouyahia, Tuesday continued talks to form a new government which he has promised will be younger and made up of technocrats.

But his approaches have been largely shunned by the opposition parties and union leaders.

In his latest message, Bouteflika appealed to Algerians to "offer your support to your army to protect Algeria from external dangers."

His comments came after the army chief promised the military would remain "the bastion of the people and the nation."

"Everyone must show responsibility to find solutions as soon as possible," Ahmed Gaid Salah said Monday.

Part of the president's inner circle, he said Algerians "have the abilities necessary to prevent their country from any situation (in which) it could be exploited by hostile foreign parties."

Authorities have previously warned that the protests risk dragging Algeria into instability, comparing the rallies to those that sparked Syria's ongoing war.