Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have protested across Algeria for a fourth consecutive Friday, as the country’s political elite began distancing themselves from the ailing 82-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Despite a heavy police presence, huge crowds marched through the capital, Algiers,the capital, calling on Bouteflika to step down after two decades in power.

The rallies were 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 followed protests by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people a week ago but was condemned by civil society groups, who said it was intended to “trick and divide the popular movement”.

The almost entirely peaceful demonstrations are the biggest outpouring of dissent seen in Algeria for decades.

Friday’s protests were the largest yet and were “joyous but purposeful”, observers said. Demonstrations also took place in Béjaïa, Oran, Batna, Tizi Ouzou and other cities. Police later said that 75 protestors were arrested.

“Bouteflika and his men must go as soon as possible,” said Yazid Ammari, a 23-year-old student.





Protesters gather on a building in Algiers



Protesters gather on a building in Algiers. Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA

Bouteflika, who returned from medical treatment in Switzerland on Sunday, stopped short of relinquishing office and has said he will stay on until a new constitution is adopted.

In recent days, senior figures in the ruling Front de Liberation Nationale party (FLN) showed signs of turning its back on the veteran politician, one of the generation who came to power following Algeria’s bloody war of independence against France from 1954 to 1962.

Hocine Kheldoun, a former ruling party spokesman, said in a TV interview on Thursday night the president was “history now”. Kheldoun – one of the most senior FLN officials to break with Bouteflika publicly – said the FLN had to look forward and support the aims of demonstrators protesting against Bouteflika.

Other key components of the informal coalition of interest groups, cliques and organisations that constitute the Algerian political elite have broken away in recent days, too.

Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. His bid to seek a fifth consecutive five year term sparked the current crisis.

A former minister who is familiar with Bouteflika’s inner circle told Reuters the president could not survive given the pressure building against him. “Game over. Bouteflika has no choice but to quit now,” they said on condition of anonymity.

The protest movement has begun to search for representatives who can unite protesters in advance of a national conference and elections.

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.

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.





Protesters in Algiers



The public has lost patience with deteriorating economic conditions. Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA

Young people have been in the frontline of the protests. More than 70% of Algerians are under 30 and have been badly hit by unemployment.

One of Algeria’s most influential clerics appealed for patience. “Let’s be optimistic, Algeria needs to overcome its crisis,” said Mohamed Abdelkader Haider from an Algiers mosque.

The military, which has traditionally played a behind-the-scenes power broker role, has distanced itself from Bouteflika and stayed in its barracks throughout the crisis.

Algeria was relatively untouched when the 2011 Arab spring uprisings swept away autocrats in the Arab world. Bouteflika and his allies quelled unrest by spending oil money on the population, handing out low interest loans and housing.

Bouteflika helped to defeat a civil war against Islamist insurgents in which tens of thousands of people were killed in the 1990s, and many Algerians long accepted heavy-handed rule as the price of stability.

But the public has lost patience with deteriorating economic conditions and the FLN’s failure to make the transition to a new generation despite the president’s failing health.

Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report.



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