Algeria‘s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has pledged not to serve a full term if re-elected at April polls following huge protests against his bid to extend his 20 years in power.
The ailing leader on Sunday vowed in an 11th-hour letter read out on state television to organise a “national conference” that would set a date for early polls which he would not contest.
The announcement came after hundreds of students staged new protests in the Algerian capital and other cities against a fifth term ahead of a midnight deadline for candidates to register for the April 18 vote.
In Algiers, where protests have officially been banned since 2001, police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse more than 100 students rallying near the main campus of the city’s university chanting slogans such as “Bouteflika go away”, witnesses told news agencies.
Protesters also turned out in their thousands in other cities around the country, including in Oran, Batna, Blida, Skikda and Bouira, according to witnesses and local television footage.
The demonstrations came amid heightened security at the Constitutional Court in Algiers where contenders have until midnight to submit their candidacy for the country’s top job.
While there are no legal requirements for candidates to be physically present to submit their bid, Algerian law does require that they be medically fit to assume the presidency.
The 82-year-old Bouteflika has been in power since 1999 but has not addressed the nation in years. He has rarely been seen in public since he suffered a stroke in 2013.
Protests first broke out on February 22, about two weeks after Bouteflika confirmed in a letter carried by the official APS news agency that he was running in the April 18 vote, with many expressing doubts over his ability to lead the country in light of his failing health.
A week ago, the president flew to Switzerland for what his office described as “routine medical checks”.
Other candidates in the race
On Saturday, Bouteflika’s office announced that the head of state sacked his campaign manager, former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, who successfully oversaw Bouteflika’s past three reelection bids.
He was replaced by Transport Minister Abdelghani Zaalene.
An editorial Sunday in El-Moudjahid newspaper, a mouthpiece of the government, said protesters would be “disappointed” in their campaign to force Bouteflika to pull out of the presidential race.
Six candidates have already registered, including prominent retired general Ali Ghediri, who was the first to announce he would run for the presidency, calling it a “major challenge” and promising a “change”.
Businessman Rachid Nekkaz, who has cultivated a mass following among young people, said he would follow suit on Sunday afternoon.
Skirmishes with police
The scale of the protests has surprised many in Algeria and represents the biggest challenge in years to Bouteflika, who has gained respect by many for his role in ending a civil war in the 1990s that officials say killed nearly 200,000 people.
Omar Ashour, associate professor of security studies and Middle East politics at Qatar’s Doha Institute, said the anti-Bouteflika protests in Algeria were at a “different level”.
Referring to protests following Bouteflika’s decision to seek reelection in 2014, Ashour said: “At the time, we saw tens to hundreds of protesters. Now we are seeing hundreds of thousands of protesters. So in terms of intensity, scale, geographic location, and numbers we are talking about a very different level.
“It’s very surprising.”
On Friday, clashes erupted between police and protesters in Algiers as tens of thousands of people took to the streets.
Riot police used tear gas and batons to keep some protesters from marching on the Government Palace which houses the prime minister’s office, AFP news agency reporters said.
According to a police toll, 56 police officers and seven demonstrators were hurt and 45 alleged stone-throwers were arrested in Algiers.
Officials have warned that the protests risk dragging Algeria into instability, with the prime minister comparing the rallies with those that sparked Syria’s war.
Protesters have been mobilised by calls on social media which have resonated with young Algerians, many of whom struggle for employment in a country where half the population is under 30.
Reporters at state radio have complained that their bosses have imposed a blackout on coverage of the protests, and last week journalists also took to the streets to protest against alleged censorship.