Tens of thousands of people on Friday took to the streets, including in the capital Algiers where demonstrators are forbidden to vent their ire at Bouteflika’s bid to extend his 20 years in power at elections in April.
Presidential polls “will take place in less than two months, and everyone will make their choice freely”, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said in televised comments that were the first official reaction to the protests.
“Everyone has the right to support their candidate and be against any other candidate, the ballot box will decide in a peaceful and civilised way.”
Bouteflika, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, announced on February 10 that he would run for another term in office.
The 81-year-old leader flew to Switzerland on Sunday for what the presidency called “routine medical checks” before the April 18 vote.
“Thank God the rallies were peaceful, but I urge vigilance” as “calls to demonstrate were from an unknown source”, Ouyahia said.
The premier insisted Bouteflika has pledged to hold a national “conference, unprecedented in the history of Algeria” if he is reelected, where “everything” can be discussed.
“Algeria has been through enough suffering and experienced enough reforms to have the opportunity to choose in peace and quiet,” he said.
‘Pass on the baton’
The scale of the demonstrations on Friday took many in the North African state by surprise.
A follow-up call for protests by a small opposition group drew hundreds in central Algiers Sunday, but they were met by a heavy police deployment and tear gas.
On Monday around a hundred lawyers protested at court over the fifth term, waving placards that they were “with the people”.
Students have called on social media for fresh demonstrations on Tuesday, while teachers and university lecturers have urged their colleagues to join in.
At a university campus in Algiers students said that the president’s moment to leave had come.
“Bouteflika has done good things for Algeria but it is time for him to pass on the baton,” second-year computer science major Sid Ahmed Hanoun told AFP.
Bouteflika, who has governed Algeria since 1999, was instrumental in fostering peace after a decade-long civil war in the 1990s.
The veteran leader’s allies argue his presence ensures security in the country, but that did not wash with the students.
“I was born in 1999. In 20 years I have known only Bouteflika as president and in that time there have been four presidents in the United States,” said Adel, also in his second year.
“There is no evidence that Bouteflika leaving would destabilise the country.”