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Algeria protests: Bouteflika to stand down after next election

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Monday, 4 March 2019 17:11, updated on Friday, 8 March 2019 12:13

A demonstrator holds up a placard that reads, "Bouteflika go away" during a protest to denounce President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term. Claude Paris/AP/SIPA

Backed into a corner by mass demonstrations, Algeria's ailing 82-year-old president promises reform

A sea of Algerians took to the streets on Friday, forcing compromise.

Their president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke, and is currently in Geneva for medical reasons.
• “I’ve heard the heartfelt cry of the protesters”, he said, via a letter read out by a journalist on television.
• Though he will contest the Presidential elections in April, massive public protests forced him to promise he would stand down thereafter.

In Algeria, a wider continental malaise is writ large: old leaders, a young and angry youth population, plenty of natural resources but an out-of-touch administration.

The massive brain drain of skilled Algerians is proof of the rot for many.

• “I have already done my paperwork to migrate,” Moumen Mohamed, a cardiologist who works at a state hospital, told Reuters. “I am waiting for a response”.
• Nearly 15,000 Algerian doctors already work in France and 4,000 submitted applications to leave their home country last year, according to official figures.

What is holding up reforms? Massive oil and gas reserves – the third largest in Africa – create a prize for the clique around the president and the securocrats who make up the ruling elite. These include the clan around the president’s brother, Saïd Bouteflika.
• The firing of security boss Abdelghani Hamel is thought to be part of the regime’s internal turf war over the control of drug money. In May 2018, 700kg of cocaine were seized at the Port of Oran.

The mismanagement is coming home to roost, however:
• Unconventional finance methods – essentially printing money – have delayed insolvency.
• Algeria has burnt through over $100bn of foreign exchange reserves since the oil price crashed in 2014.
• Big infrastructure projects such as the East-West Highway have become a millstone – the most expensive road in the world at $15bn.

The result: Algeria faces the same problem as when Bouteflika arrived in power more than two decades ago: an undiversified economy, vulnerable to price swings, albeit with much greater ingrained corruption.

Watch out for:
• To what extent protesters are bought off by a promise to step down after the election, and whether the opposition can unite behind a reform figure.

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