Algeria’s president returns to face protesters after medical checks

Tens of thousands of protesters have been demanding Algeria’s president sit out coming election

Algeria’s ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has returned to the country on Sunday, where he faces widespread protests against his plans for a fifth term in power, after two weeks away for “routine” medical checks in Switzerland.

Schools and shops shut and public transport ground to a halt in the capital Algiers during a strike on Sunday.

Students, who have spearheaded the movement, and teachers occupied universities despite the government bringing forward public holidays that would have usually involved them travelling to their home districts.

The severely ill Bouteflika left the country shortly after the start of the protests which have since swollen in size, with tens of thousands gathering in the capital Algiers and around the country on successive Fridays to demand he does not participate in the coming election.

State-run Ennahar TV reported that the ruling FLN party had called on Sunday for national reconciliation after the protests.

The ailing president has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

Hundreds of students took to the streets of the capital chanting “Bouteflika, there will be no fifth term” on Sunday. Many shops in Algiers are closed.

Women of all ages took to the streets for the protest, dubbed the “March of 20 Million”, which coincided with International Women’s Day. Many marched with Algerian flags and flowers in their hands.

“It’s women’s day, but more than that, it’s a day of dignity for Algerian women,” said one female demonstrator, who attended the protest with her daughter and declined to give MEE her name.

“Our elders led the revolution [for Algeria’s independence from France] and we’re fighting for our children against the mafia in power.”

The Arabic word “Silmiya” has been a recurring slogan, used during the rallies since 22 February. Meaning “peaceful”, the word is being used to counter the Algerian government’s warnings not to take to the streets.

The authorities have sought to quell the protests by making a parallel between what’s happening today and bloody encounters in Algeria’s history, including a civil war in the 1990s and regional conflicts, such as the wars in Syria or Libya.

“But the wall of fear has crumbled,” said one protester on Friday, Kahina, 32, who only gave MEE her first name. “It will take more than threats to stop us from expressing our anger.”

Several public figures, including members of his ruling FLN party and lawmakers have resigned to join the rallies against a political system dominated by veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France.

Two branches of the powerful Algerian labour union UGTA, representing tens of thousands of workers, also opposed the re-election plan. Lawyers have also joined rallies.

Algerians desperate for jobs and angry at unemployment, corruption and an elderly elite show no sign of backing down despite Bouteflika’s offer to limit his term after the election.

Algerians packed central Algiers to capacity on Friday in the biggest protests in the capital in 28 years. Security forces detained 195 people, state television said, citing offences such as looting.

On Friday, a lawyer acting on behalf of an unnamed Algerian citizen filed a petition with a Swiss court requesting that Bouteflika be placed under a trusteeship for his own protection, alleging that his “fragile health” left him vulnerable to “exploitation” by those around him.

Pointing to news reports that Bouteflika’s condition was “very precarious” and “life-threatening”, the petition submitted by lawyer Saskia Ditisheim also demanded that the court lift the medical secrecy around his condition and that it request a medical certificate pertaining to his aptitude to govern.