By Lamine Chikhi and Hamid Ould Ahmed
ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algeria’s government on Wednesday declared itself ready for talks with protesters seeking rapid political change, saying it sought a ruling system based on “the will of the people” after opposition groups rejected proposed reforms as inadequate.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Monday reversed a decision to seek a fifth term in the face of weeks of mass rallies by protesters fed up with authoritarian rule and decades of economic and political stagnation.
But the initiative by Bouteflika, who also delayed elections and said a conference would be held to discuss political changes, has failed to satisfy many Algerians who continue to want power to move to a younger generation with fresh ideas.
“Dialogue is our duty. Our top priority is to bring together all Algerians,” deputy prime minister Ramtane Lamamra told state radio.
“The new system will be based on the will of the people,” he said, adding participants in a conference to write a new constitution would include mainly young people and women.
One prominent protest leader said talks were not on the agenda, at least for now.
“We refuse to negotiate transition with the regime. No negotiations,” university professor Fodil Boumala told Reuters. “The balance of power is on our side, let’s strengthen our movement. We need to maintain pressure for up to three weeks.”
Earlier, Armed Forces Chief of Staff and deputy defence minister Ahmed Gaed Salah told Ennahar TV the army would preserve Algeria’s security “in all circumstances and conditions”.
Tens of thousands of people from all social classes have demonstrated over the last three weeks against corruption, unemployment and a ruling class dominated by the military and veterans of the 1954-62 independence war against France.
The protests have shaken up a long moribund political scene marked by decades of social and economic malaise and behind-the-scenes power broking by an influential military establishment.
In an unusual sign of a rift within the political elite, a prominent independence war veteran described Bouteflika’s plan for reform and political transition as a “coup d’etat.”
Former guerrilla fighter Djamila Bouhired said Algeria’s post-independence governments had continued to be subject to what she called France’s tutelage, something she said was illustrated by French President Emmanuel Macron’s support for Bouteflika’s initiative.
“The latest revealing sign of these perverse links of neocolonial domination, the support of the French president for the coup d’etat programmed by his Algerian counterpart is an aggression against the Algerian people…,” she wrote in a letter to El Watan daily.
Young Algerians have no bond with the independence war except through their grandparents. Their priorities are to find jobs and better services that the North African country is failing to provide despite its oil and gas.
In an illustration of the disconnect between the ageing Bouteflika and restless young Algerians, the president announced his transition plan in a letter to a nation where people vent frustrations through social media.
“When you read the letter closely, it is very crafty. He says ‘I’m retiring’, but the further you read on, the clearer it becomes that it’s a ruse, that he’s side-stepping and hedging,” said Kader Abderrahim, analyst at Sciences Po university in France.
“It’s about extending his fourth mandate into eternity. It took Algerians only a few hours to realise what was going on and to understand what he was up to.”
The pressure on Bouteflika — who has ruled for 20 years but has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 — is unrelenting.
A mass protest is planned in Algiers for Friday.
On Wednesday, school teachers held a strike in several cities and were joined by other Algerians.
“We want to uproot the system,” said 25-year-old student Messaoud Meki.
(Additional by Sophie Louet in Paris; Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by William Maclean)