If protestors allow ‘infiltration’ by unspecified forcesit may provoke chaos, says bouteflika, as large demonstration expected
Protest against candidacy of Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term as Algeria’s president. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Large demonstrations against the Algerian president’s decision to seek a fifth term are expected on Friday as Abdelaziz Bouteflika warned of chaos if protesters allowed what he called the “infiltration” of their movement by unspecified forces.
People from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds have taken to the streets across Algeria in recent weeks in what have been the biggest demonstrations in the country since the 2011 Arab spring. Authorities on Friday halted train and metro services in the capital, Algiers, amid heavy security.
“Our citizens took to the streets … to peacefully express their opinions. We welcome this maturity of our citizens, notably youth,” Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has ruled the north African country since 1999, was quoted as saying on Thursday.
“We urge vigilance and caution against any possible infiltration of misleading parties, either internal or external, in this peaceful expression. Such parties may cause discord and provoke chaos … they may trigger crises and woes.”
The 82-year-old said the country faced “many economic, social and political challenges” but made no mention of protesters’ demands that he withdraw his candidacy from next month’s presidential elections.
Instead, he raised concerns that Algeria could return to the “national tragedy” of its decade-long civil war in the 1990s.
About 1,000 lawyers gathered in Algiers in protest on Thursday, chanting “the people want to overthrow the regime” and “republic, not a kingdom”. Several said Bouteflika’s poor health should disqualify him from the election.
Bouteflika, who has been in Switzerland since 24 February for what are described as routine medical tests, uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since having a stroke in 2013.
The lawyers breached police cordons to march on the constitutional council, the body responsible for approving the candidacy of the 21 people registered to run in the 18 April election. All will require a medical certificate to prove their good health.
“We are asking the constitutional council to assume its responsibilities … This candidacy [Bouteflika’s] is inadmissible,” Ahmed Dahim, a member of the Bar Association of Algiers.
Despite a ban dating back to 2001, demonstrations have been staged almost daily in Algiers since a huge rally on 22 February.
“The characteristics of the protests are that they are in all parts of the country, are painstakingly peaceful and disciplined and very, very youth driven,” said Hannah Rae Armstrong, an Algeria expert with the International Crisis Group.
Journalists also gathered on Thursday to protest against the pressures exerted on them because of their coverage of the demonstrations.
Two branches of a powerful labour union, which represents tens of thousands of workers, said on Wednesday that it opposed Bouteflika’s re-election attempt. “The members do not want a system that is linked to oligarchs,” the branches of Rouïba and Reghaïa, two large industrial suburbs of Algiers, said, referring to close relationships between Bouteflika and tycoons.
The National Organisation of Mujahideen, which represents veterans of Algeria’s war of independence against France, said this week that protesters had legitimate concerns and urged all citizens to demonstrate.
Bouteflika is a veteran of the 1954-62 conflict, and became a minister at 25 in its aftermath. He then served as foreign minister, helping turn Algeria into a centre for revolutionary movements.
He returned to power in 1999 after almost 20 years in exile in France, and is credited with ending a civil war triggered when the military stepped in to cancel an election after Islamists won early rounds. At least 150,000 people were killed.
The memory of the savage violence of the 1990s has made many Algerians reluctant to risk political upheaval, despite widespread anger at corrupt, incompetent rulers. This was one factor in the relative peace in the country during the Arab spring uprisings, but a new generation has now reached political maturity. More than two-thirds of Algerians are under 30 and young people have been at the forefront of recent protests.
“The demonstrations are joyful, mixed, colourful, full of the vitality of the young people of a country which was stifled under a republic rapidly becoming a sort of monarchy,” wrote Saïd Djaffar, a journalist on the Huffington Post Maghreb website.
Analysts say there are divisions among the top officials of the ruling FLN party, spies, business people and Bouteflika’s inner circle. The 82-year-old’s candidacy went ahead because none of the various factions could agree on an alternative, according to a western diplomat recently returned from Algeria.
Bouteflika “is the last of the old guard, but there’s no young guard. There’s no succession plan and no mechanism to arrange something that will have any kind of popular support”, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Opposition parties are also divided. Protesters were unimpressed by Bouteflika’s pledge on Sunday that he would step aside if victorious in the election and would call a national conference to discuss reforms and a new constitution.
One key question is the role of the military, which has stayed in barracks throughout the unrest. The generals may intervene if the protests look likely to seriously destabilise the country.
Algeria is one of Africa’s biggest oil producers, and revenues were used in 2011 to damp down unrest. Lower local production levels and lower global prices means that is not an option now.