ALGIERS One of the founders of the Algerian state has called on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to respond to the wave of unrest in the Arab world by replacing a system of rule he called undemocratic and out of date.
After popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, Algeria's ruling elite has come under pressure to change from anti-government protesters and also from influential figures inside the energy exporter's establishment.
Abdelhamid Mehri, a former head of Algeria's FLN ruling party, said in a letter addressed to Bouteflika that radical change was needed before Algeria marks the fiftieth anniversary of its independence from France next year.
The governing system is "no longer capable of addressing the big challenges facing the nation," Mehri said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.
"The voices calling for a peaceful change of this system are many. This change cannot be postponed any longer."
Mehri's words carry weight because he was a leading figure in Algeria's struggle against French colonial rule and helped forge the country's identity after independence.
Mehri, who is 84, is one of only two Algerians still alive who negotiated the Evian Treaty, which ended France's 130-year colonial rule after a war of independence that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Under Algeria's constitution, political power is held by the president and parliament, which are both elected. Most analysts say though that the security forces have substantial influence over decision-making.
According to people familiar with the inner workings of the governing system, pressure is building from inside the system for the introduction of new blood and for less state control of the economy, which many people believe has been a failure.
"Mehri is offering Bouteflika a way to leave office with dignity and honour," said Mohamed Lagab, a writer and lecturer at Algiers university.
Analysts say a popular revolt is unlikely in Algeria because it has cash to placate economic grievances and there is no appetite for fresh turmoil because the country is still emerging from more than a decade of conflict with Islamist insurgents.
But Mehri said in his letter, dated February 16, that Algeria had much in common with Egypt and Tunisia.
"The ruling systems in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria have a democratic facade but exclude, through different means, a large part of the citizens from participating in public life," said Mehri, who like Bouteflika fought against the French.
"The challenge is therefore to put in place a democratic system which will include the majority of the population in decision-making. The change cannot ... be made through decisions made on high," he wrote.
"Algeria is due to celebrate soon the fiftieth anniversary of its independence. I think the time we have left is sufficient to agree on a peaceful change."
A few hundred opponents of the government staged a protest in the capital on Saturday but were vastly outnumbered by police. They have said they will demonstrate again each Saturday until democratic change is introduced.
Bouteflika has promised to offer more political freedoms, including the lifting of a 19-year-old state of emergency and giving the opposition access to state media. His government has also promised to reduce unemployment.
The letter to Bouteflika follows an interview last week by Zohra Drif Bitat, vice-president of the upper house of parliament, on state radio in which she said it was time for a shake-up of the government.
Mehri served as Algeria's ambassador to France and was secretary-general of the FLN from 1988 until 1996. Since then he has made occasional comments on the country's political life but the letter is his most direct intervention yet.
(Writing by Christian Lowe and Lamine Chikhi; Editing by Ralph Boulton)