World / Politics

Ailing Bouteflika, 82, returns to face Algerian demonstrations

Bloomberg

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika arrived home from Geneva on Sunday, as students vowed to keep up mass demonstrations against his re-election bid and the ruling party scrambled for a way out of the crisis.

Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term has triggered seismic protests in the North African OPEC member, presenting the 82-year-old leader and ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party with their most serious challenge since his election in 1999.

His promises to amend the constitution and serve an abridged term if re-elected in the April 18 ballot have failed to satisfy protesters frustrated with “le pouvoir,” a cabal of military officers, veterans of Algeria’s war of independence and big businessmen who have governed the oil and gas producer for decades.

In a statement released hours before Bouteflika was discharged from a Geneva hospital and rushed to the airport, the FLN said it was working with all political groups to find a way out of the crisis while preserving the national interest, hinting that the ruling elite was looking to appease the street without unsettling the political structure.

In another indication authorities were preparing to respond to nationwide demonstrations, which began on Feb. 22 and have drawn in ever larger numbers, the powerful military chief of staff Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah struck a conciliatory tone on Sunday.

Eschewing earlier warnings against unrest that could drive Algeria back to the ruinous days of the 1990s civil war, Salah said the military and the people “are partners in one destiny.”

“Everyone is currently seeking to position themselves for the period after Bouteflika. The presidential alliance has completely crumbled,” said Louiza Ait-Hamadouche, a political analyst. “This is a good sign as it means the Bouteflika era is over but it could be a bad sign if we want to enter a real transitional period because it is the political forces currently in power who are directing future events.”

Bouteflika has been largely incapacitated and rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Swiss media reported in recent days that his health was deteriorating. The official APS news agency confirmed Bouteflika had returned after medical checks in Geneva. Live images showed the president’s plane and motorcade, but he has yet to appear in public.

While Algeria largely avoided the turmoil that shook its neighbors during the Arab Spring uprisings, its citizens have struggled with rising prices, frustration over alleged corruption and deteriorating living standards since oil prices tumbled from over $100 a barrel in 2014, the last time Bouteflika ran for office. The downturn in global oil markets has since sapped half the country’s foreign reserves and sharply crimped the government’s ability to sustain a generous subsidy system that had helped to placate a youthful population crying out for jobs.

The series of official comments coming from Bouteflika’s camp are reminiscent of promises made by other leaders in the heated days of the 2011 uprisings. That sequence — first ignore, then cajole and then offer minor reforms — did little to insulate the longtime leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen.

Speaking before Bouteflika’s arrival, his campaign manager Abdelghani Zalene said the president was still committed to earlier pledges of amending the constitution and holding early elections — suggesting he had no plan to back down.

“The president’s arrival or lack thereof changes nothing,” Zubida Assoul, leader of the small opposition Union for Change and Progress said in live comments on Hadath television network. “What all of the Algerian people are awaiting is for the authorities to declare their response to the people.”