An influential Algerian party on Wednesday backed the army’s call for President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika to resign – a managed exit plan that is unlikely to satisfy protesters demanding the overthrow of the entire political elite.
Both announcements were a clear signal that the 82-year-old president – who has rarely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 – has little to no chance of staying in power in the North African country, an oil and gas producer.
“This is a default solution following the failure of the negotiations on the departure of the President. It moves away from the democratic transition and approaches a framed succession,” said Hasni Abidi, a Swiss-based Algerian who heads a think tank.
There was no immediate comment from leaders of five weeks of mass protests fueled by anger over allegations of corruption, nepotism and economic mismanagement that have tarnished Bouteflika’s 20-year rule.
But the demonstrators – mostly lawyers and activists – have repeatedly said they would reject any orchestrated succession or military interference in politics and want a transition which will lead to a government by consensus.
The army’s powerful chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, told officers in a speech broadcast on Tuesday, that the solution to the biggest political crisis since the army canceled elections in 1992 would be the exit of the president on health grounds.
RND leader, Ahmed Ouyahia, said on Wednesday Bouteflika should quit under Article 102 of the constitution – which sets out procedures for leaders resigning and being declared unfit to rule.
Saleh called on the country’s constitutional council to rule whether the president was fit for office. Such a ruling would have to be ratified by members of parliament’s lower and upper house by a two-thirds majority.
While the military has praised protesters, it remains highly sensitive to any signs of instability and Salah has warned he will not allow the demonstrations to lead to chaos.
Any outright military rejection of demands for a democratic transition could lead to a confrontation with the crowds.
“Is there a risk of radicalization or confrontation if demonstrators reject the army approach? This is a hypothesis that can not be totally excluded,” said Louisa Dris, professor of political science at Algiers University.
The last time the army directly stepped in during a crisis was in 1992, when the generals canceled an election that Islamists were poised to win. That move triggered a civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people.
The stakes are high – Algeria is a leading member of OPEC and a top gas supplier to Europe, though so far oil and gas output appears unaffected by the unrest, an International Energy Agency (IEA) official said on Tuesday.
Algeria is also regarded by Western states as a partner in counter-terrorism, a significant military force in North Africa and a key diplomatic player in efforts to resolve crises in neighboring Mali and Libya.
Based on the constitution’s Article 102, the chairman of parliament’s upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, would serve as caretaker president for at least 45 days after Bouteflika’s departure.