Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika talks to Lt-Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah at a graduation ceremony in Cherchell, Algeria, June 27 2012. Picture: REUTERS/RAMZI BOUDINA
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika talks to Lt-Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah at a graduation ceremony in Cherchell, Algeria, June 27 2012. Picture: REUTERS/RAMZI BOUDINA

Algiers — Algeria’s army chief of staff called on Tuesday for a constitutional move that would see President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika declared unfit for office, in a rare direct intervention by the military after weeks of protests.

Hundreds of thousands have hit the streets to demand an end to the 20-year rule of the ailing 82-year-old president, part of an ageing and secretive elite entrenched in power since independence from France in 1962. While the military praised the demonstrators, it warned that chaos would not be tolerated.

Lt-Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah, addressing army officers in a speech broadcast on two private Algerian TV stations, called for a unified stand to resolve the crisis in the sprawling North African state, a major oil and gas exporter.

Salah said the solution would be based on article 102 of the constitution and achieve a consensus of “all visions and parties”. That article applies under certain conditions, such as deteriorating health. Bouteflika has rarely surfaced in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

The next formal step is for the constitutional council to formally to declare Bouteflika unfit for office, a decision that members of parliament’s lower and upper house need to ratify by a two-thirds majority.

Caretaker president

Based on article 102, the chairman of parliament’s upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, would serve as caretaker president for at least 45 days in the nation of more than 40-million people.

El Bilad television said the constitutional council had convened in special session after Salah’s intervention.

Algeria’s powerful military has traditionally manipulated politics from behind the scenes. The last time it stepped in during a crisis was in 1992, when the generals cancelled an election that Islamists were poised to win.

That move triggered a civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people. Algerians have dark memories of that conflict and the military is highly sensitive to any instability.

The stakes are high, for Algeria is a leading member of Opec  and a top gas supplier to Europe. It is also regarded by Western states as a partner in counter-terrorism, a significant military player in North Africa and the Sahel, and involved in diplomacy to resolve crises in neighbouring Mali and Libya.

Canny operator runs out of road

Bouteflika, among the veterans of the 1954/1962 war of independence against France who dominate Algeria, consolidated his power by outfoxing would-be rivals in the military and security services, and containing grassroots discontent.

When the “Arab Spring” protests toppled Arab leaders across the region eight years ago, oil revenues enabled him to boost state spending and buy peace in the streets.

But Algerians have since lost patience with unsuccessful efforts to reduce unemployment, ease daily hardships and tackle high-level unaccountability, corruption and nepotism.

In the latest unrest, one ally after another abandoned Bouteflika, emboldening the largely leaderless protesters.

Bouteflika ran out of options as he became increasingly isolated and failed to buy time. He bowed to protesters by reversing a decision to seek another term and putting off elections that had been set for April.

But he stopped short of quitting as head of state and said he would stay on until a new constitution is adopted, effectively extending his current term.

“In this context it became necessary, even imperative, to find a solution to end the crisis that responds to the legitimate demands of the Algerian people and which quarantines the rules of the constitution,” Salah was quoted by the state news agency APS as saying.

Thousands of people had returned to the streets of the capital Algiers earlier on Tuesday calling on Bouteflika to resign, keeping up popular pressure.

“The system must go. There is no point for it in resisting,” said Belkacem Abidi, 25, one of about 6,000 protesters, mostly students, who gathered in central Algiers on Tuesday.

Algerians will face uncertainty for some time before a new president emerges. One of the most important factors will be the position of the military, which could act as kingmaker, as it has done in past decades.

“I’m optimistic that our pressure will change things peacefully,” said architect Noureddine Bahi, 52.