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Historic protests challenge fragile Algerian leader, regime

In this May 4, 2017 file photo, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika prepares to vote in Algiers. (AP Photo/Sidali Djarboub, File)

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) -- Algeria, a gas-rich African giant and crucial western ally nearly brought to its knees in the 1990s by a bloody Islamist insurgency, is at a new turning point, this time led by citizens young and old peacefully protesting against the 20-year rule of ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

This week's protest saw hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of the Algerian capital, happily defiant and shouting "Game over" and "The wall of fear has fallen."

No one knows what lies ahead. The powerful military is girding against eventual chaos, while the citizens in the streets across the North African nation are relishing the notion of an Algeria reborn, no longer shackled by the murky system that runs the country alongside the president.

The demonstrations began after the 82-year-old Bouteflika, rarely seen in public since a stroke in 2013, announced in a statement Feb. 10 his plan to run for a fifth term in office. Protests snowballed in the following weeks with huge nationwide marches after Friday prayers.

The protests took place while Bouteflika lay in a hospital bed in Geneva undergoing what were described as medical tests. The president, who appears partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair, has undergone numerous periodic checkups. But the latest stay has lasted some two weeks. His official candidacy was filed March 3 in his absence, bolstering detractors' claims that Bouteflika is an unfit candidate for the April 18 election.

In a response to the concerns, a letter said to be from Bouteflika, read by his campaign chief, promised reforms and said he would not complete his term if elected, with a new vote held after a national conference.

The response from his opponents was curt. "Return to sender" read the headline in a commentary on the letter in the daily El Watan.

Short-lived local protests by various sectors have been legion under Bouteflika, but massive marches in cities and towns throughout the country are a new phenomenon.

"It's all of society, all categories, families, women, children, youth. ... Since our independence, we haven't seen this kind of demonstrations," said sociologist Nacer Djabi, referring to Algeria's 1962 independence from France after a brutal seven-year war.

The war, its heroes and fighters, those gone, known as "martyrs," and those still living -- Bouteflika among them -- have modeled Algeria's national character, its army and, for decades, its politics.

So when Djamila Bouhired, a heroine of the independence war, made an appearance this month among demonstrators in Algiers, it was notable; when the national organization representing war veterans praised the demonstrators and, without naming Bouteflika, denounced ties between "influential parties in the power structure and shady businessmen who illicitly benefit from public funds," it was startling.

There are no polls in Algeria and no way to know whether the weight of the street might tip the balance -- and in what direction.

The only word to describe the nature of the power structure in Algeria since independence is opaque.

Before Bouteflika took office in 1999, generals held the presidency. Though Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah recently insisted the military's place is not in politics, most Algerians assume the generals retains a powerful voice.

But today there are multiple spheres of influence, among them a coterie of the super-rich, who grew their wealth under Bouteflika, experts say. At the same time, corruption has reached crescendo levels.

The protests "are not a spontaneous movement," said Abdelaziz Rahabi, former communications minister and ambassador to Spain and other countries. "It's the fulfillment of the accumulation of scandals, problems of management, problems of government that have peppered the past 20 years." He was speaking to the website Cap Algerie while attending a recent demonstration.

Each day new tidings of revolt against a Bouteflika candidacy, and against the status quo, emerge, from lawyers, health workers, architects. A group of unions and more than two dozen political parties held a conclave Thursday, concluding that holding elections as scheduled would "endanger the stability of the country," and called for a period of transition.

Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, who hosted the conclave, is among presidential candidates who have dropped out in protest. Twenty others remain in the race, notably retired general Ali Ghediri, who sprang from nowhere and has run a low-key campaign critical of the system. All bids, including Bouteflika's, are still to be validated.

On Thursday, Bouteflika himself warned of "eventual infiltration" among demonstrators of "insidious parties, internal or external who could ... spark fitna (disorder) and provoke chaos."

The message, which identified no party, corresponded to a warning from Gaid Salah, the army chief, who also evoked dark forces wanting to "take (Algeria) back to the years of fire."

He was referring to what is now called the "national tragedy," the brutal war born in the ballot box with the nation's first free elections, won by an Islamist party before the army stepped in. Extremists trying to create an Islamic state took over swaths of territory, burned villages and carried out massacres.

Bouteflika is credited with bringing together the divided nation with his national reconciliation plan, adopted in 2005. Today, the president's camp stresses the need for continuity.

Facing peaceful mass protests is a daunting challenge for a system with a deficit of democratic DNA. Past protests were most often resolved with payouts to meet demands.

"What's different is that this time it's about an expression of political will. The government cannot respond with resources," said Geoff Porter of U.S.-based North Africa Risk Consulting. "The government cannot acquiesce to these demands easily."

With 65 percent of Algeria's nearly 42 million people under the age of 30, most of today's population didn't live through the years of terror, Djabi, the sociologist, notes.

"There is something Bouteflika didn't understand. He should have left sooner," Djabi said. "He doesn't know this new society," notably young people seeking a more open, modern way of life, he said. "The great majority of Algerians want another Algeria."

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