Algiers, Algeria – Thousands of Algerians have staged fresh protests after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s offer not to serve a full term in next month’s elections failed to appease public anger against his bid to seek a fifth term in office.
In a letter read out on state-run TV on Sunday, shortly after the 82-year-old’s campaign manager formalised his candidacy, the ailing leader vowed to organise an inclusive national conference that would set a date and prepare for new polls which he would not contest.
In the statement, which came in response to an unprecedented mass protest movement against his 20-year rule, Bouteflika also pledged to improve the redistribution of the oil-producing country’s wealth and create better economic opportunities for Algerians.
The promises, however, did little to quell the protesters’ frustration.
Late on Sunday, hundreds of young people gathered in Algiers’ Audin Square, chanting slogans denouncing Bouteflika’s candidacy.
Thousands more staged new anti-government protests on Monday in the capital and other cities, including Oran, Constantine and Bouira, according to witnesses and local TV footage.
“These demonstrations showed that the Algerian population is not naive. We do not believe President Bouteflika when he says that he is ready to step down in the near future. It is a new manoeuvre of the regime to find a way to buy time,” Reda Boudraa, deputy leader of Rally for Democracy and Culture (RDC), a secular opposition party, told Al Jazeera.
“What is interesting with his message is that he is acknowledging that something new is happening with these protests and that his regime can no longer survive without any change,” he added.
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 would run in the April 18 presidential elections.
The president, who has used a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 2013, last week travelled to Switzerland for medical tests. His exact whereabouts are currently unknown.
With anti-Bouteflika rallies expected to continue throughout the week across Algeria, many expressed doubts that the president was sincerely willing to handle a democratic transition if he won the polls.
“Bouteflika’s determination to run again despite his fragile health and widespread protestations is a political suicide,” said Walid Hadjadj, a member of Young Generation, another secular opposition party.
“He had the chance to leave power without violence. Now, the regime will be toppled by the people mobilisation. His attitude reminds me of [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali‘s attempt to stay in power,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to Tunisia’s long-time ruler who was overthrown in a 2011 uprising sparked by anger at poverty and unemployment.
Bouteflika’s offer has been heavily criticised by several opposition parties, some of which are calling for a boycott of the upcoming vote.
“We will not take part in the election if Abdelaziz Bouteflika runs for a fifth term because we have already noticed multiple fraud activities,” Abdelaziz Belaid, founder of the opposition Front El Moustabal party said on Monday, two days after registering his own candidacy.
On Monday, Ali Benflis, Bouteflika’s main opponent during the 2004 and 2014 presidential elections, described Bouteflika’s offer as an “unspeakable additional provocation”.
Benflis, who has withdrawn from the presidential race to protest against Bouteflika’s fifth-term bid, said the “Algerian people were expecting an unambiguous response but, instead, they heard the same unfulfilled old promises.”
Two other main opposition parties, the Labour Party and the Islamist Movement Society for Peace, have also decided to boycott the polls.
In a speech at her party’s headquarters in Algiers on Friday, Labour leader Louisa Hanoune said that “this electoral process represents a danger for the country’s national security. We need to help this administration to leave the power for the country’s best interest”.
A ‘fair deal’?
But others, including Ilies Berdiche, a member of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia‘s National and Democratic Rally (RND) party, described Bouteflika’s proposal on Sunday as “a fair deal”.
“It will give enough time to opposition parties and civil society organisations to be ready for a major political transition,” Berdiche, who will volunteer for Bouteflika’s election campaign for a fifth term, told Al Jazeera.
“Bouteflika’s offer is consistent with the letter he sent in February when he announced his intention to run for a fifth term,” he said.
“At that time, he had already called for the establishment of an inclusive and national conference to organise a peaceful transition. Everybody, including the Bouteflika administration, agrees that the time has come for wide-ranging reforms.”
Likewise, Djaoudia, a business management student backed Bouteflika’s proposal as a peaceful way out of the political turmoil.
“I don’t want the electoral process to be cancelled,” Djaoudia told Al Jazeera. “This will ensure a soft exit out of the crisis. I agree that political transition is needed but it will require time. Bouteflika’s offer will guarantee the success of a political transition.”
Others, however, disagreed.
“Bouteflika is not in shape to organise a political transition,” Amina, a 30-year-old paediatrician, said.
“He must leave now. Besides, he lied to the population when he said that his fourth term would be the last one. How can we trust him now when he promises to step down if he wins the vote in April?”