ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algerian students protested Tuesday against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to delay presidential elections indefinitely, as political opposition figures voiced their resistance amid an unprecedented revolt against his 20-year leadership.
Bouteflika ceded to opponents Monday by withdrawing his candidacy for a fifth term. But joy in the streets soon gave way to skepticism over the second part of his announcement: his decision to delay an April 18 election without setting a new date. That could leave him in power indefinitely.
The 82-year-old Bouteflika’s health, meanwhile, remains unclear. He has just returned from two weeks in a Geneva hospital, and appeared slow and weak in rare images released Monday on state television.
A wily political survivor , Bouteflika fought in Algeria’s independence war from France and is still appreciated for reconciling his deeply damaged nation after the bloodshed of the 1990s during a decade-long Islamic insurgency.
The protests erupted last month against Bouteflika’s plans to seek a fifth term, drawing millions to the streets. It’s been an unusual public outpouring for a country tightly controlled by the security services.
On Tuesday, former Prime Minister Ali Benflis penned a critical statement saying the president’s decision was suggestive of yet “another desperate act in a political system searching for a way out, or a new breath.” While, the Rally for Culture and Democracy Party, in a statement, accused him of “granting himself an illegal and indefinite extension to the post of head of state.”
Protesters on the street question Bouteflika’s fitness for office after a 2013 stroke that has left him largely hidden from public view. They’re also angry at what’s seen as a corrupt and out-of-touch power structure that has grown rich under Bouteflika while millions see little gain from the country’s gas wealth.
Many protesters are now demanding that Bouteflika step down April 18 instead of waiting for a new vote. If that occurs, the constitution says the Senate president would take over and an election would be held within three months.
Young people have been at the forefront of the push against Bouteflika, and thousands of students thronged the streets of Algiers on Tuesday. Broad, nationwide protests are expected Friday.
Bouteflika ousted his prime minister as a gesture to protesters, but replaced him with a loyalist, Noureddine Bedoui, who took office Tuesday in a ceremony in which he pledged to “work tirelessly to live up to” Bouteflika’s trust.
The president is expected to name prominent international peacemaker Lakhdar Brahimi to head a new “national conference” aimed at setting an election date and drafting a new constitution.
Brahimi was formerly a U.N. mediator on Syria, and his appointment could ease concerns of foreign allies worried about Algeria’s unrest. But critics on Algerian social media Tuesday dismissed him as a symbol of a has-been generation and member of the global elite who has spent too much time abroad to understand Algeria’s current reality.
France, home to a large Algerian population and with close economic ties to its former colony, has been watching the protests closely.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday welcomed Bouteflika’s decision not to run again — but urged Algeria’s leadership to ensure a political transition “within a reasonable delay” and not to let the process drag on.
Bouteflika’s decision to abandon a fifth term unleashed celebrations Monday, but many called it only a first step. Critics said they fear Bouteflika’s crafty maneuver threatens democracy and could pave the way for the president to install a hand-picked successor.
In a letter to the nation, Bouteflika stressed the importance of including Algeria’s disillusioned youth in the reform process and putting the country “in the hands of new generations.” Lack of job opportunities is a key concern for young Algerians, many of whom take risky illegal journeys across the Mediterranean to seek work in Europe.
Thomas Adamson and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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