April 3, 2019 / 12:11 PM / 6 months ago

Algeria's interim rulers under pressure for more change as Bouteflika goes

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria’s caretaker government faces the prospect of persistent popular demands for the removal of a scletoric ruling elite and wholesale reforms after ailing 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika quit in the face of mass protests.

“We want a president who understands what we want,” 25-year old Bouzid Abdoun, an engineer at state-owned energy concern Sonelgaz, told Reuters on Wednesday. “We want to live here, not to migrate to Europe.”

Bouteflika ended 20 years in power on Tuesday after a final nudge by the military following six weeks of protests calling for democratic reforms after almost 60 years of monolithic rule by veterans of the 1954-62 independence war against France.

That leaves Algeria extraordinarily in the hands of a caretaker government until elections in three months and with no successor in sight.

However, protesters made quickly clear that they would accept no new president from “le pouvoir”, the popular nickname for the entrenched establishment of elderly veterans, business tycoons and National Liberation Front (FLN) party functionaries.

“What is important to us is that we do not accept the (caretaker) government,” Mustapha Bouchachi, a lawyer and protest leader, told Reuters just before Bouteflika stepped down. “Peaceful protests will continue.”

Ali Benflis, a former head of the ruling FLN party, said other leading figures should also quit, naming Abdelkader Bensalah, chairman of the upper house who is standing in for Bouteflika for 90 days, interim premier Noureddine Bedoui and constitutional council head Tayeb Belai.

“The Algerian people have just closed one of the darkest chapters in the history of our country,” he said in a statement, calling the protest a “peaceful popular revolution”

Protesters have brushed aside especially Bedoui, whom Bouteflika appointed on Sunday as his grip on power was fading. Bedoui is seen by many in the street as a stalwart of the ruling circles - as interior minister he oversaw elections which the opposition said were not free or fair.

Algeria’s streets were quiet on Wednesday but the next test for the interim rulers looms on Friday, the day of the weekly mass marches since Feb. 22.

Bouteflika’s exit is seen only as a first gesture for young Algerians demanding jobs in a country where one in every four under the age of 30 is unemployed in a highly statist, undiversified economy dependent on oil and gas exports.

In an emotional letter published by state media, Bouteflika bade farewell to the nation, thanking Algerians several times for having him rule the country for 20 years.

“Algeria will soon have a new president and I pray that God will help him to pursue the ambitions and hopes of its brave children,” he wrote.

CORRUPTION AND CRONYISM

The outpouring of dissent is also over systemic cronyism that has seen Algeria effectively run by Bouteflika’s brothers, tycoons and ex-military intelligence officers since he suffered a stroke in 2013 and largely vanished from view, analysts say.

Protests were initially ignited by Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth mandate in elections this month, since postponed, but the agenda broadened to calls for root-and-branch change.

The top priority for any successor would be to liberalize the economy, shifting away from an expensive but unproductive welfare state, and create jobs for young people who comprise almost 70 percent of the population.

The North African country has almost no foreign debt burden but its hard currency reserves have halved to $70 billion since 2014 due to a slide in volatile oil and gas prices.

“Definitely the top priority is to address economic issues to diversify away from oil and gas revenues,” said one analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.

One name with an economic background respected by many protesters who has emerged as a potential successor is Ahmed Benbitour, who served as prime minister under Bouteflika before resigning over lack of progress on reforms.

He is a technocrat with no ties to political parties, though he is also in his 70s like many senior Algerian officials.

Earlier this week, in a sign of Bouteflika’s imminent political demise, authorities seized the passports of a dozen politically connected businessmen under investigation for alleged corruption. One of them, Bouteflika loyalist Ali Haddad, has been taken into custody, Ennahar TV reported on Wednesday.

Algerian President AbdelazizÊBouteflika hands over resignation letter to constitutional council head Tayeb Belaiz as upper house chairman Abdelkader Bensalah (L) looks on, in Algeria, April 2, 2019, in this still image from Algerian State TV video. Algerian State TV/Handout via REUTERS

“Bouteflika’s group captured the state, so the top priority for whoever replaces Bouteflika is really to re-connect with the millions of protesters who marched because they no longer trust the pouvoir,” said independent analyst Farid Ferrahi.

Western powers, some of which had demanded a peaceful solution, will be relieved at Bouteflika’s departure, valuing stability in the OPEC oil producer, which is also a key gas supplier for Europe and partner in fighting Islamist militants.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he “looks forward to a peaceful and democratic transition process that reflects the wishes of the Algerian people,” a statement said.

Additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Hesham Hajali and Michelle Nichols; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Mark Heinrich and William Maclean

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