Algeria’s president of two decades abandoned his bid for a fifth term Monday following unprecedented protests over his fitness for office, but his simultaneous postponement of an election set for next month had critics worried he intends to hold on to power.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has rarely been seen in public since he had a stroke in 2013 and just returned from two weeks in a Geneva hospital, promised to establish a panel to plan a rescheduled vote and to put an interim government in place.
Bouteflika, 82, stressed the importance of including Algeria’s disillusioned youth in the reform process and putting the country “in the hands of new generations.”
But for many of the protesters – students, lawyers and even judges among them – the most important sentence in the president’s letter read, “There will be no fifth term.”
Celebrations popped up instead of protests on the streets of the capital, Algiers, at the news. Car horns rang out while people waved flags, jumped up and down, and sang the national anthem. Several thanked Bouteflika. One described the development as a “real ray of sunshine.
Others were more cautious, calling their longtime leader’s pledge to step aside just a first step. Bouteflika did not give a date or timeline for the delayed election.
He said in his Monday letter that the “national conference” he would task with planning the vote also would be responsible for drafting a new constitution for Algeria.
He said he would name an interim government as well. The changes were put in motion within hours.
Noureddine Bedoui, a Bouteflika loyalist and the current interior minister, was made prime minister and charged with forming the new administration.
Critics said they fear the moves could pave the way for the president to install a hand-picked successor. Others saw his decision to postpone the election indefinitely as a threat to democracy in Algeria.
A wily political survivor, Bouteflika fought in Algeria’s independence war against French forces and has played a role in Algeria’s major developments for the past half-century.
He became president in 1999 and reconciled a nation riven by a deadly Islamic insurgency, but questions swirl over whether he is really running the country today.
The recent protests surprised Algeria’s opaque leadership and freed the country’s people, long fearful of a watchful security apparatus, to openly criticize the president.
Algerians also expressed anger over corruption that put their country’s oil and gas riches in the hands of a few while millions of young people struggle to find jobs.
The unprecedented citizens’ revolt drew millions into the streets of cities across the country to demand that Bouteflika abandon his candidacy.
On Monday, Algerian state television aired the first images of Bouteflika since the protests started. Bouteflika, who has used a wheelchair since his stroke, appeared weak and moved with slow gestures. No sound accompanied the images.
While the tense nation waited to see if he would make any concessions now that he was back from his hospital stay, teenagers and lawyers held protests, and workers held scattered walkouts,
Security was high in Algiers, where some businesses were shuttered by a second day of strikes. Lawyers in black robes gathered in front of courthouses to join calls for Bouteflika to withdraw from the election.
Some judges joined the lawyers protesting in the city of Bedjaia. Judges normally are prohibited from publicly demonstrating, as are police officers and soldiers.