'Thieves, You Destroyed the Country': Algerians Turn Focus of Demonstration to Political Elite

Protesters demonstrate against political system amid talk of ousting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Military veterans protest to demand the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and changes to the political system, in Algiers, Algeria March 28, 2019.
Ramzi Boudina / Reuters

Hundreds of Algerians took to the streets on Thursday to protest not only against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but also against the political system, which for decades has been built around veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France, military officers and business tycoons.

The army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, on Tuesday asked the constitutional council to rule whether the ailing 82-year-old president is fit for office.

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State radio said that the council has not yet held any meeting so far to decide on Bouteflika’s fate.

Salah’s call received backing from the ruling FLN party and the main trade union, signaling that Bouteflika’s time was all but up after 20 years in power.

But leaders of the protest movement that has staged five weeks of peaceful demonstrations reject the army’s transition plan and demand the overthrow of the entire ruling elite.

 “Thieves, you have destroyed the country,” they chanted.

“Our battle will continue until we get rid of the system,” said architect Belaid Hakimi.

The General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), long a staunch supporter of the president, has also said it supported the army call for Bouteflika to step down.

In an unusual development suggesting further disarray in Bouteflika’s inner circle, the owner of a TV station close to the government, Ali Fodil, was detained by the authorities for several hours on Thursday, his Echorouk TV channel reported.

He was later released on the order of the general prosecutor. Officials had no immediate comment on the matter.

On Wednesday evening, Echorouk broadcast a program critical of Bouteflika’s influential younger brother Said. Another TV station, Ennahar, said Fodil had been detained by intelligence personnel.

Any ruling by the constitutional council on Bouteflika’s future would have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in the two houses of parliament.

Under the constitution, the chairman of parliament’s upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, would serve as caretaker president for at least 45 days after Bouteflika’s departure.

But even if Bouteflika quits, there is no clear long-term successor.

And even if both sides dig in, no Algerian wants to risk returning to the dark days of the 1990s, when the army’s cancellation of elections that Islamists were on the verge of winning triggered a civil war that killed 200,000 people.