March 14, 2019 / 9:44 AM / 7 days ago

New Algerian premier promises broad government, urges dialogue

(Reuters) - Algeria’s new prime minister said on Thursday he would form a temporary government of technocrats and others to work towards political change in response to weeks of street protests, and he urged the opposition to join in a dialogue.

Algeria's newly appointed prime minister, Noureddine Bedoui, speaks during a joint news conference with deputy prime minister Ramtane Lamamra, in Algiers, Algeria March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Noureddine Bedoui laid out his plans at a news conference in Algiers three days after ailing President Abelaziz Bouteflika announced his decision not to run for a fifth term that would have extended his 20 years in power.

Bouteflika’s move came after tens of thousands of Algerians staged demonstrations demanding an overhaul of a political system dominated by veterans of the 1954-62 war of independence against colonial power France.

He delayed elections set for April and said a national conference would be held to discuss reforms.

However, Bouteflika stopped short of stepping down and many activists fear his move may be a ruse in a country where authorities have a long history of manipulating the opposition.

“Algerians were expecting Bedoui to provide answers, which he did not,” Hassen Zitouni, 25, a young protestor, told Reuters

NEW GOVERNMENT

Prime Minister Bedoui, who replaced Ahmed Ouyahia on Monday, said the new administration would be formed early next week.

“This government will have a short period, and its role is to be the support for the national conference and what Algerians agree upon,” the former interior minister said.

It would be technocratic but also include young Algerians involved in the protest movement, including women, said Bedoui, 60.

“The make-up will be one that represents all the forces and especially the youthful ones of the sons and daughters of our nation, so that we can meet the aspirations that the Algerian citizen expressed.”

Independent analyst Farid Ferhi was not convinced. “It’s like putting gasoline on fire. Demonstrators are unhappy and they will show it on Friday.”

The peaceful protests have been unrelenting, with the biggest gatherings held on Fridays. The military has said it would not tolerate chaos but soldiers have stayed in the barracks. Security forces have been mostly restrained.

The prime minister urged the opposition to accept dialogue. But lawyers and activists who protesters have chosen to lead the drive for reforms have ruled out negotiations, at least for now.

Bouteflika, rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, promised on Monday to work for a new era. But the initiative has failed to satisfy many people who want power to move to a younger generation with fresh ideas.

People from all social classes have demonstrated over the last three weeks against corruption, economic hardships and the ruling class. The unrest has shaken up a long moribund political scene marked by decades of social and economic malaise and behind-the-scenes power-broking by the military establishment.

On Thursday, people with special needs, accompanied by their families, took part in a protest in Algiers demanding immediate political change and an improvement in their living conditions. Some were in wheelchairs.

MORE MASS PROTESTS

Activist Nadjib Belhimer dismissed the prime minister’s promises. “This is why we should march massively tomorrow.”

Young Algerians have no bond with the independence war except through their grandparents. They believe Bouteflika and his inner circle are out of touch in a nation where unemployment exceeds 25 percent among people under 30.

Algeria was relatively unscathed by the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that toppled veteran autocrats across the Middle East.

At the time, the government had enough oil cash to contain frustrations with low-interest loans free housing.

Older Algerians credited Bouteflika with ending a civil war between security forces and Islamists in the 1990s. They bet on him to deliver stability.

Editing by Angus MacSwan and Michael Georgy

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