Algiers, Algeria | AFP | Thousands of protesters returned to Algeria’s streets Tuesday after jubilation over President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s vow not to seek re-election gave way to fears of a plot to prolong his two-decade rule.
In a surprise announcement Monday, the ailing 82-year-old said he would not stand for a fifth term — but also cancelled next month’s presidential election.
After initial celebration, thousands of students along with some lecturers held a new protest in the capital Tuesday, accusing Bouteflika of “tricks”.
“The students are resisting the extension of the fourth mandate,” they chanted in an Algiers square that has been the epicentre of protests demanding Bouteflika resign.
“It’s a ploy to win time… in order to put in place another puppet like the (current) president,” said a student who gave her name as Amel.
Ghania Bellal, a journalism student, said Bouteflika “is mocking us”.
“Right from the start he wanted to extend his term,” she said. “He got what he wanted… illegally.”
Protesters held up signs saying: “No extra time. This is not a football match.”
Demonstrators gathered for hours in central Algiers before dispersing late afternoon.
Students also took to the streets of major cities Oran and Constantine, where they were joined by professors, journalists said.
The president announced on Monday that a “national conference” would set a new date for polls that he would not contest.
“There will not be a fifth term” and “there will be no presidential election on April 18,” he said in a message reported by the official APS news agency.
The veteran leader, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, said he was responding to “a pressing demand that you have been numerous in making to me”.
National television broadcast footage on Monday night of Bouteflika in his trademark three-piece suit receiving several senior officials.
– ‘Battle is not won’ –
Students have been at the forefront of weeks of massive demonstrations demanding Bouteflika step down, in a country where half the population is under the age of 30.
Messages posted overnight on social media urged students across the country to “end this system, end this mafia” with more protests planned on Friday.
Louisa Dris-Ait Hamadouche, a professor of political science at Algiers University, told AFP that Bouteflika’s announcement was not an admission of defeat.
“The reason some people spoke of victory was the fact that he announced his withdrawal. But there was, in fact, no withdrawal since there will be no election,” she said.
“In the place of a fifth term, he is extending his fourth term.”
Bouteflika has named interior minister Noureddine Bedoui as the new prime minister to replace the unpopular Ahmed Ouyahia.
Several newspapers have also accused Bouteflika of deceiving the people.
“He scraps the presidential election but stays in power: the latest ploy by Bouteflika,” the influential El Watan newspaper said on its front page.
The Liberte daily denounced a “sham” while El Khabar newspaper said Bouteflika wanted “to remain president without elections”.
Former colonial power France cautiously “welcomed” Bouteflika’s announcement but President Emmanuel Macron called for “a transition in a reasonable timeframe”.
The United States said it supports the right of Algerians to “free and fair elections”.
State Department spokesman Robert Palladino did not directly address Bouteflika’s decision, simply saying: “We’re closely monitoring reports that Algeria’s elections have been postponed.”
– ‘Chills up my spine’ –
Bouteflika’s promise of a “national conference” to carry out reform and set a date for new elections “before the end of 2019” suggested he may stay in office for another year.
“There is no legal basis to delay the elections,” said Fatiha Benabou, a professor at Algiers University and expert on constitutional matters.
The president’s pledge, a day after he returned from Switzerland where he spent two weeks at a hospital for medical checks, failed to convince his key rival Ali Benflis.
The former prime minister, who has joined the opposition, said in an online video that the president was “prolonging his fourth mandate”, calling it “an act of aggression against the constitution”.
Former culture minister Abdelaziz Rahabi tweeted that Bouteflika was “ridiculing the people”.
“His determination to stay in power will push the country towards the unknown and is dangerous for the stability of the state and unity of the people,” said Rahabi.