March 4, 2019 / 2:49 PM / 18 days ago

Algeria students defy Bouteflika offer to shorten new term in power

* Bouteflika seeks fifth term in office

* His plan faces youthful surge of opposition

* Elite dominated by ageing independence veterans

By Lamine Chikhi and Hamid Ould Ahmed

ALGIERS, March 4 (Reuters) - Students determined to pursue Algeria’s biggest anti-government protests in years boycotted classes on Monday to denounce an offer by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not to serve a full term if re-elected.

Hundreds of protesters took part in small demonstrations across the north African country, continuing almost two weeks of marches and rallies against the 82-year-old leader’s plan to seek a fifth term.

Bouteflika’s offer appeared aimed at undermining the youthful wave of opposition against his 20-year rule and shore up an establishment dominated by ageing revolutionary stalwarts of the 1954-62 independence war against France.

Shops were open in Algiers but students did not show up for classes at Bab Ezzouar University in Algiers, the biggest in the oil-producing North African country.

Several other university campuses in the capital Algiers were also deserted.

“We are not going to study, this is a decision we have taken yesterday,” Amina, a 21-year-old student, told Reuters.

“Together we are the world and the system is nothing,” a said a message posted by activists on social media.

Bouteflika’s campaign manager said on Sunday that the president would run in April elections, defying calls for him to quit at the end of his current term.

The announcement read out by Abdelghani Zaalane on Bouteflika’s behalf said the president pledged to organise a national conference to discuss reforms and then call early elections in which he would not run, with Ennahar TV saying that would be held within a year.

OPPOSITION FRAGMENTED

Hundreds of people protested in several cities outside Algiers, footage posted online showed. Security sought to contain the protests but there was no sign of the military.

Algiers residents who spoke to Reuters said they were disappointed by Bouteflika’s decision.

The veteran head of state, in office since 1999, has rarely been in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

“How come Bouteflika asks for one more year, there is nothing in the constitution that allows this,” said Maziane Ali, a 50-year-old owner of a fast food restaurant.

Tens of thousands of protesters had rallied on Sunday in cities around Algeria, in the largest protests since the 2011 Arab Spring, calling on Bouteflika not to submit election papers for the April 18 polls. Zaalane filed the papers late on Sunday.

Bouteflika’s opponents say he is no longer fit to lead, citing his health and what they call chronic corruption and a lack of economic reforms to tackle high unemployment, which exceeds 25 percent among people under 30.

The generally peaceful unrest is the biggest challenge to Bouteflika, but analysts say protesters lack a leader and the opposition is fragmented and unorganised.

After a decade-long Islamist insurgency that Bouteflika crushed early in his rule, Algerians generally tolerated a political system that left little room for dissent as a price to pay for relative peace and stability.

Algeria’s protests are being watched closely by European countries, which include some of the main customers for its gas exports, but public reactions to them on the northern shores of the Mediterranean have been circumspect.

In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry said it took note of Bouteflika’s decision to run in the elections and hopes the vote takes place in the best possible conditions.

Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by William Maclean

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