Algerian students march with placards and flags during a protest one day after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his withdrawal from the presidential race. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ DPA/ FAROUK BATICHE
Algerian students march with placards and flags during a protest one day after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his withdrawal from the presidential race. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ DPA/ FAROUK BATICHE

Algiers — Thousands protested across Algeria on Tuesday, demanding immediate political changes a day after ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika abandoned his bid for a fifth term in power but stopped short of stepping down.

Huge crowds gathered in several cities and Ennahar TV reported workers began a strike that paralysed operations at the Mediterranean port at Bejaia.

Bouteflika, 82, bowed to weeks of mass demonstrations against his 20-year-old rule on Monday and promised a transition to a new leadership. But he postponed elections scheduled for April, meaning he will likely remain in power for some time.

Veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and protest groups will join a conference planning Algeria’s future, government and political sources said on Tuesday.

Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and UN special envoy who is in his 80s, is expected to chair the conference that will oversee the transition, draft a new constitution and set the date for elections, a government source said.

Crowds who came back onto the streets on Tuesday demanded quicker action, reflecting suspicions that the old guard, adept at manipulating opposition groups, might be seeking to weaken and divide the protest movement.

“The whole system must disappear immediately. Our battle will continue,” 25-year-old student Noureddine Habi said in central Algiers as others chanted: “We want this system to go.”

‘Divide and rule’

Algerians have grown tired of Bouteflika and other veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France who have dominated a country with high unemployment, poor services and rampant corruption despite its oil and gas reserves.

“The government has often encouraged the radicalisation of popular protests in the past as a ploy to divide and rule, and it knows all the moves,” wrote North Africa expert Hugh Roberts.

More than a quarter of Algerians under 30 are unemployed.

“We do not need Bouteflika to decide on behalf of the people,” said 50-year-old-grocer Ahmed Beddine.

Algeria’s deputy prime minister said Bouteflika’s decision is the most important turning point since independence from France, Annahar TV reported.

“A competent government will be established, with the confidence of the participants in the national conference, which will supervise the presidential process,” said Ramtan Lamamra.

Contacts are now under way with war veterans who may take part in the transition, including Djamila Bouhired and Zohra Drif Bitat, two of the most famous guerrilla fighters of the conflict, political sources said.

Seen by Algerians as revolutionary heroines, they were part of a network of women who carried explosives in a bombing campaign in 1956 that included an attack on the fashionable Milk Bar cafe depicted in the film The Battle of Algiers.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Bouteflika’s statement opens a new chapter, and called for a “reasonable duration” to the transition period.

“I think it’s a sign of maturity. We will do everything to accompany Algeria in this transition with friendship and respect.”

Algeria’s powerful military is expected to play a behind-the-scenes role during the transition and is considering several civilians as candidates for the presidency and other top positions, political sources said.

One of them includes a prominent lawyer and activist, Mustafa Bouchachi, who has gained a wide following on Facebook during the demonstrations.

Reuters