Thousands of demonstrators have gathered in the centre of the Algerian capital for a fourth consecutive Friday demanding that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika leave his office.
The crowd at Algiers’ landmark Grand Poste square was growing, two hours before the scheduled start of the demonstration against the 82-year-old who has been in power for two decades.
The rally is the first major test of whether Bouteflika has calmed anger on the streets with his surprise announcement on Monday that he would not seek re-election but was cancelling an April presidential poll.
“You pretend to understand us, we will pretend to listen to you,” read a banner, according to the AFP news agency, held aloft by the mostly young demonstrators.
Meanwhile, Algeria‘s ruling FLN party showed more signs of turning its back on Abdelaziz Bouteflika, with one senior party figure saying in an interview overnight the long-serving president was “history now”.
Former ruling party spokesman Hocine Kheldoun, who talked to Ennahar television late on Thursday, became one of the most senior FLN officials to break with Bouteflika publicly, saying the party had to look forward and support the aims of demonstrators.
A former minister who is familiar with Bouteflika’s inner circle told Reuters news agency that the president could not survive given the pressure building against him.
“Game over. Bouteflika has no choice but to quit now,” the former minister said on condition of anonymity.
Bouteflika had initially sparked joy among protesters when he said he would not stand again, but his move to cancel the vote prompted accusations of “tricks” and sparked a new round of demonstrations.
He has also named a new prime minister, replacing unpopular premier Ahmed Ouyahia with former interior minister Noureddine Bedoui, who on Thursday defended the postponement of the poll.
The protest movement has been led by students, in a country where half the population is under the age of 30 and youth unemployment has spurred anger against a government seen as out of touch.
The military, which has traditionally played a behind-the-scenes power broker role, has distanced itself from Bouteflika and stayed in its barracks throughout the crisis. It is expected to retain influence under all scenarios.
Bouteflika, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, has promised a “national conference” to carry out reforms.
The president said new elections would be held “before the end of 2019”, suggesting he may stay in office for another year.