Thousands gather for Algeria protest as movement eyes leaders
Thousands of demonstrators have gathered in the centre of the Algerian capital for a fourth consecutive Friday, as the country’s nascent democracy movement began to search for representatives who can unite protesters in advance of a national conference and elections.
With police keeping their distance, crowds gathered at Algiers’ Grande Poste square hours before the scheduled start of a demonstration calling on the 82-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to step down after two decades in power.
The rally is the first major test of whether Bouteflika has calmed anger on the streets with his surprise announcement on Monday that he would not seek a fifth term but was cancelling an April presidential poll to allow for consultation on reforms “for a new generation”.
The move was condemned by civil society groups, who said it was intended to “trick and divide the popular movement”.
Protesters have previously expressed pride in the leaderless nature of the movement, which was born of anonymous social media pages and seen in part as a rebuke to the official opposition, which is viewed as having been co-opted by the regime.
But after protesters succeeded in preventing Bouteflika standing for a fifth term, the movement is working to bring together union leaders, protesters and civil society leaders around potential candidates who can voice their demands as they push to overthrow the government.
“This is a broad and spontaneous movement – it’s not really possible to put forward a single figure who can represent all parts of it,” said Soufiane Djilali, a Mouwatana coordinator. “This is also a movement that won’t accept anyone without a vote or due process. No one has right to say the movement belongs to them.”
Djilali suggested the opposition should instead hold a conference to nominate three or four figures who could act as the spokespeople for the opposition with an eye to the election. He declined to say whether he would put himself forward.
A group of developers launched 22Fevrier2019.org, a website where users can “upvote” political propositions by tapping on a heart or hit the thumbs-down button for those they dislike.
The top suggestion reads: “I nominate Mustapha Bouchachi to oversee the transition period and organise the next elections.” A prominent human rights lawyer, Bouchachi told the website Tout Sur Algérie he was concerned that Bouteflika cancelling the election would allow the regime stall for time and remain in power. “I fear they will destroy the country,” he said.
On Thursday, Algeria’s new prime minister, Noureddine Bedoui, and his deputy, Ramtane Lamamra, held a press conference intended to reassure Algerians that the political elite would listen to their demands.
“We will take into account the messages of the protesters during the formation of the government,” said Bedoui, as he offered a new “technocratic” government in the coming weeks to usher in the national conference.
Bedoui promised a short transition and independent commission to oversee the next election, an offer unlikely to satisfy protesters. “We hope that all will participate,” he said.