Tlemcen, Algeria – Demonstrators who took to the streets en masse against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule reacted in jubilation to his withdrawal from elections but said he now must step down.
In Tlemcen, Bouteflika’s stronghold 540km west of Algiers, the president’s decision was celebrated on Monday night as drivers honked their horns and people on the street cheered.
“The protests have paid off. This is a small victory of the Algerian people over the regime,” Mohamed, a 27-year-old cook, told Al Jazeera while honking his horn.
Hundreds of people joyfully gathered in the capital Algiers’ Audin Square, according to witnesses.
Bouteflika – who has ruled Algeria for decades – has faced three weeks of mass protests against his planned fifth-term run. He relented on Monday by announcing he wouldn’t be running again but said the presidential elections scheduled for April 18 will be postponed indefinitely.
The ailing president, 82, made the unexpected decision in a letter to the Algerian people released on state-owned agency APS, a day after returning from a two-week stay at Geneva University Hospital for “routine medical tests”.
“There will be no fifth term. There was never any question of it for me. Given my state of health and age, my last duty towards the Algerian people was always contributing to the foundation of a new Republic,” he wrote.
Transfer of power?
According to Bouteflika’s message, an inclusive and independent conference will oversee the transition of power, drafting new constitutional law and setting the date for new presidential elections. The conference, due to finish its work by the end of 2019, will submit a new constitution to voters in a referendum.
Shortly after Bouteflika’s announcement, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia resigned and was replaced by Nourredine Bedoui, a member of Bouteflika’s inner circle who has served as interior minister since 2015. Meanwhile, former minister of foreign affairs and Bouteflika’s close ally Ramtane Lamamra was named deputy prime minister – a position created on Monday by presidential decree.
But the long-standing leader, who has been rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, failed to respond to widespread demands for his immediate resignation.
“This is not a victory for the people because Bouteflika’s measures are not consistent with the people’s will. We have asked for his departure, for a democracy and a state of law, and a real change of regime. This is not what we got,” Abderrahmane, cofounder of the Warda Project non-government organisation, told Al Jazeera.
Liasmine, a photographer who lives in Tizi Ouzou, was also not satisfied with Bouteflika’s announcement.
“What he wrote is what we rejected before. He treats us like fools,” Liasmine said.
On March 3, after his campaign manager submitted his candidacy papers, Bouteflika tried to appease protesters by offering to hold a national dialogue conference, change the constitution, and hold a vote within a year – in which he vowed not to run, but later changed his mind.
“We want the current regime to collapse,” Liasmine told Al Jazeera. “I don’t trust the old guard to oversee a democratic and independent transition. They will use this conference as an opportunity to find a way to remain in power”.
‘Strategy to divide’
Demonstrators said Bouteflika does not intend to leave office immediately and is “illegally” prolonging his fourth term.
“Algeria is turning into a monarchy against the people’s will,” Sabeha, who took part in demonstrations in Algiers on Monday, told Al Jazeera.
“We are now dealing with a president so eager to cling on power that he will stay in office until a date nobody knows,” the 30-year-old manager added.
Abderrahmane, 25, criticised Bouteflika’s move to cancel the election without announcing a new date. “Once again he disrespects and violates the constitutional law,” the activist said.
Many protesters view Bouteflika’s decision as a manoeuvre to stifle the protest movement and to maintain the status quo, at least temporarily.
“This is a strategy to divide us, we should not stop now. We need to keep on fighting against his rule and the regime,” said Liasmine, who plans to take part in new demonstrations on Friday.