Pressure for change in Algeria mounts

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Prominent reformist lawyers and rights activists are spearheading popular pressure against what they see as an authoritarian and out of touch ruling system in Algeria, several activists told Reuters.

Opposition activists dismissed a decision by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not to stand for a fifth term as a half-measure aimed to placate popular anger and doing nothing to address decades of economic and social malaise.

Algeria’s government declared itself ready for talks with protesters, saying it sought a ruling system based on “the will of the people”.

A prominent protest leader maintains talks are not on the agenda, at least for now.

“We refuse to negotiate transition with the regime. No negotiations,” Fodil Boumala, a demonstration leader, told Reuters.

“The balance of power is on our side, let’s strengthen our movement. We need to maintain pressure for up to three weeks.”

Apart from Boumala (48) a well-known intellectual and university professor, emerging protest leaders include former prime minister Ahmed Benbitour (73) who resigned in 1999 disagreeing with Bouteflika’s economic policies, and Zoubida Assoul (63), a lawyer and leader of a small political party, activists said.

Among the most prominent is lawyer and human rights activist Mustapha Bouchachi (67) several activists said.

While no formal vote was taken, activists said the four figures were part of a group of prominent Algerians taking a leading role in the protest movement and trusted by those who took to the streets.

“Our key goal now is to strengthen the movement so more forces can join and protect the movement from infiltration from Bouteflika’s system,” Boumala said.

MORE PROTESTS EXPECTED

Bouteflika (82) bowed to weeks of mass demonstrations against his 20-year-long rule earlier this week and promised transition to a new leadership. He postponed an election set for April, meaning he will likely remain in power for some time.

Protesters saw the move as a ruse by officials with a track record of manipulating opposition groups to keep the country’s military-dominated power structure intact.

The initiative failed to stem protests, fuelled by anger at unemployment, corruption, poor public service and the failure of a Soviet-style bureaucracy to deliver greater freedoms or stimulate private enterprise.

“I think Bouteflika did not understand the message of the demonstrators,” Bouchachi told Reuters.

“They said no to elections, no to a fifth term and no to a government that has in the past fabricated elections.”

CARETAKER GOVERNMENT

Trust is a major demand among protesters seeking credible interlocutors with what Algerians call ‘le pouvoir” (the powers-that-be), an opaque but powerful military-dominated leadership adept at dividing and ruling opposition movements.

“I will vote for Bouchachi on Facebook,” Hassen Ait Aissi told Reuters, referring to online postings about the demonstrations.

“We need and must have representatives we trust to deal with Bouteflika’s people”.”

Boumala said the country would need a transition period of up to 24 months to make sure new and legitimate institutions were put in place. In the interim a caretaker government of technocrats would be appointed.

Bouteflika’s reform offer included a conference to chart a new constitution. The conference, followed by elections, could take until the end of 2019, he said.

The prospect of Bouteflika staying in power that long incensed many Algerians, who recall the head of state hinting at wide ranging political reforms several times previously.

Political sources said veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is charged with steering the political process, in which Bouteflika’s opponents are expected to sit down at some stage with the president’s allies.

Another player in any talks would be newly appointed Prime Minister Nouredine Bedoui, the sources said.