TUNIS — Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Monday said he would not seek a fifth term in office and delayed next month’s elections, a stunning turnaround that came after weeks of massive street protests in the North African nation.
Tens of thousands of Algerians packed the streets of the capital, Algiers, celebrating the political demise of their ailing leader, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since he suffered a stroke six years ago. Some waved the national flag, while countless others blew car horns, according to video and photos posted on social media.
“Our protests have borne fruit! We defeated the supporters of the fifth term!” taxi driver Mohamed Kaci, 50, told Reuters.
Bouteflika, 82, became the fifth leader since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings to be forced out of office by public pressure, following autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
The Algerian president has led the country, a major oil and gas producer, for two decades. His decision to run for a fifth term had propelled tens of thousands of Algerians from all walks of life to demonstrate in the capital and other cities for weeks, demanding that he rescind his decision. The protesters were eventually joined by Bouteflika allies, as well as judges, clerics and other influential figures in society, adding more pressure for him to step down.
The sudden change of direction, announced by the country’s official news agency, came a day after Bouteflika returned to Algiers from Switzerland, where he had been receiving medical treatment for the past two weeks.
The elections, scheduled for April 18, will be postponed until an interim leadership is established and can plan for a new vote, the news agency reported, citing the office of the presidency. No new date was announced. A new constitution will be drawn up and submitted for a public referendum, and political and economic reforms will be carried out, according to the office of the presidency.
But even though Bouteflika has been pushed aside, his loyalists and allies will continue to rule the country. As part of the political shake-up announced Monday, Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui will replace Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, and a diplomatic adviser to Bouteflika will become the deputy prime minister.
The changes took place after Bouteflika met with the powerful army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gaed Salah, who told a local television station Sunday that the military and the Algerian people had “a united vision,” suggesting that Bouteflika’s days were numbered.
Bouteflika, the longest-serving head of state in Algeria, has governed since 1999. He oversaw the end of Algeria’s decade-long civil war against Islamists in which as many as 200,000 people died.
Once in power, he surrounded himself with other veterans of Algeria’s war for independence in 1962 against its colonial ruler, France. Today, those veterans still control the nation.
For decades, protests were rare as Algeria’s powerful security and intelligence forces exerted total control. So when masses of Algerians first swept into the streets last month, few expected Bouteflika to fall. But in the end, the security forces, while firing tear gas to disperse protesters, did not resort to a violent crackdown.
After Monday’s announcement, many on social media congratulated the Algerian people for their courage.
“I’m crying of joy right now,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a graduate student, wrote in a tweet. “I am thrilled and happy for the beautiful people of #Algeria. I am so proud of my beloved motherland. The Algerian people are strong and resilient and I keep learning so much from them.”
Still, Arabs across the region questioned on social media whether Algerians should stop their demonstrations — or continue to push for a fresh generation of leaders.
“The new prime minister was the former interior minister & the ancien regime remains very much entrenched in power, albeit shaken,” Timothy Kaldas, a Cairo-based Middle East political analyst, wrote in a tweet. “The peaceful pressure must be fully sustained.”