ALGIERS (Reuters) – President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is expected to return to Algeria on Sunday after two weeks in a Swiss hospital as he faces mass protests that pose the biggest threat to his 20-year rule.
In the clearest indication yet that the generals sympathize with tens of thousands of Algerians who want Bouteflika to step down, the chief of staff said the military and the people had a united vision of the future, state TV said. Lieutenant General Gaed Salah did not mention the protests.
A source familiar with the matter told Reuters Bouteflika would return on Sunday. Ennahar TV had said he was expected to land at around noon (1100 GMT).
An Algerian government plane landed at Geneva’s Cointrin airport earlier on Sunday. A Reuters witness saw the Gulfstream executive jet, the one which had taken Bouteflika to Geneva on Feb. 24, touch down at the airport amid a heavy police presence.
There was no immediate sign of any ambulance or motorcade carrying the 82-year-old Bouteflika. The ailing president has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.
“Bouteflika is welcome if he comes back but we do not need him at the presidency,” said Aziz, a 17-year-old student.
Algerians of all social classes have protested over the past three weeks against Bouteflika’s decision to stand in April’s election.
The ruling FLN party urged all sides to work together to end the political crisis, Ennahar TV said. It wants national reconciliation and to preserve security and stability, the station said.
But there are no signs Algerians are prepared to heed that call after rejecting Bouteflika’s offer to limit his term after the election.
‘NO FIFTH TERM’
On Sunday, thousands took to the streets of the capital carrying the Algerian flag and chanting: “Bouteflika, there will be no fifth term”. Many shops in Algiers were closed and residents say train services had been suspended.
“We have taken to the streets today to protest a fifth presidential term. We are against a fifth term. This is enough,” protester Zakaria said in front of the Central Postal Office.
Young Algerians are desperate for jobs and angry at unemployment, corruption and an elderly elite.
“The current system is unable to provide jobs,” said Farid Kahil, 27, who is unemployed.
Bouteflika managed to remain in power as the “Arab Spring” uprising toppled autocrats in neighboring countries in 2011 because Algeria had enough foreign reserves to boost state spending.
Older Algerians haunted by the civil war in the 1990s tolerated crackdowns on dissent in exchange for stability, giving the government some breathing space. Now some have appeared at demonstrations to demand reforms.
“We need a new generation to govern us and secure a better future for our children,” said pensioner Ahmed, 63.
Even if Bouteflika’s position becomes untenable, it is not clear who could replace him. Algeria has stagnated for decades under veterans of the independence war who dominate the country.
For years, rumors have swirled about potential successors, but no one credible has emerged who has the backing of the army and elite and is not in their 70s or 80s.
Algeria’s chief of staff has warned that chaos would not be tolerated. The military has stayed in barracks.
Several public figures, including members of Bouteflika’s FLN party and lawmakers have resigned to join the rallies against a political system dominated by war veterans since independence from France in 1962.
Two branches of the powerful Algerian labor union UGTA, representing tens of thousands of workers, have opposed the re-election plan and lawyers have also joined rallies.
Algerians packed central Algiers to capacity on Friday in the biggest protests in the capital in 28 years. Security forces detained 195 people, state television said, citing offences such as looting.
Additional reporting by Abdelaziz Boumzar in Algiers, Tom Miles and Marina Depetris in Geneva; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Janet Lawrence