Tens of thousands of Algerians rallied on Friday to demand the immediate resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is fighting for his political survival in the face of relentless protests and the desertion of long-time allies.
Defying heavy rain, the protesters brandished Algerian flags and pamphlets as they gathered in the same spot in the capital where a wave of demonstrations first erupted a month ago against Bouteflika’s 20-year rule.
“Rain will not prevent us from continuing pressure,” said student Ahmed Khoudja, 23, in a square in central Algiers.
The protests were expected to swell further after Friday prayers, as has happened on the four previous Fridays during this wave of demonstrations that kicked off on Feb 22.
“We stay here until the whole system goes,” said Mahmoud Timar, a 37-year old teacher.
Bouteflika, 82, rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke five years ago, bowed to the protesters last week by reversing plans to stand for a fifth term and promising an inclusive politics in Algeria, a major oil and gas producer.
But he stopped short of quitting and said he would stay on until a new constitution is adopted, effectively extending his present term. The move further enraged Algerians, and many of Bouteflika’s allies, from ruling party members to trade union leaders to tycoons, turned against him.
“We are close to victory. The system is divided,” said restaurant owner Rachid Zemmir, 55, at Friday’s rally.
Army, ruling party back protests
In the most significant development in a month of demonstrations, Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah on Wednesday threw the army’s weight behind the protesters, saying they had expressed “noble aims”.
Soldiers have stayed in their barracks through the unrest but the army has traditionally deeply influenced politics.
The generals have intervened in the past at momentous times, including cancelling an election which Islamists were poised to win in 1992, triggering a civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people were killed.
The ruling National Liberation Front party, known by its French acronym FLN, has also sided with the protesters.
In the past, Bouteflika and his inner circle of fellow veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France, FLN officials and the military skilfully managed crises.
When the “Arab Spring” revolts toppled autocrats in neighboring countries, Bouteflika used oil revenues to secure loyalty -- offering better salaries for state workers, housing and low-interest loans.
But the price of crude oil has dropped over the years and the young are desperate for jobs, an end to corruption and nepotism and a say in how the North African country is run.
Algerians who credited Bouteflika with negotiating an end to the civil war in the 1990s were eager for stability, even though they shared many of the frustrations which triggered revolts elsewhere.
While Bouteflika was adept at manipulating the opposition in the past, he now faces Algerians of all social classes and ages staging the biggest protests in decades.
Even if Bouteflika quits, it is not clear if the swelling protest movement can bring down the deep state - a secretive network of ruling party leaders, business tycoons and army generals long regarded as invincible.
These figures, who long managed politics in behind-the-scenes negotiations, may be happy to see Bouteflika go but are likely to resist any major political changes, as they have done in the past.