Algiers – Thousands of students and public transport workers went on strike in Algeria Sunday against Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term, as the presidency confirmed the ailing leader had returned from Switzerland.
The plane carrying Bouteflika from Geneva — where he has been in hospital for the past two weeks — landed at Boufarik military base south of Algiers late afternoon, several Algerian media outlets said.
The Ennahar TV channel broadcast pictures of a convoy of black cars, preceded by motorbikes with flashing lights, speeding towards Algiers on a main road that was closed to other traffic.
The head of state’s return ahead of April 18 elections came as protest strikes shut down the capital’s public transport system and many schools across the country.
The 82-year-old president, who suffered a stroke in 2013, left Algeria on February 24 for what the presidency on Sunday once again described as “routine medical checks”.
Demonstrations against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term have attracted tens of thousands of people in Algiers and across the country for each of the last three Fridays, with smaller demonstrations taking place on other days.
Algeria’s army chief and deputy defence minister, Ahmed Gaid Salah, was silent on the upcoming elections Sunday but said the military and the people share “the same values and principles”.
Together they hold “a unique vision of the future of Algeria,” said Salah, considered to be within Bouteflika’s inner circle, in an address to students from military schools.
Following the breakout of protests, the army chief earlier this month pledged to guarantee Algeria’s security and criticised those he said want to return to the “painful years” of Algeria’s 1992-2002 civil war.
– Shops shut –
No trains, metros, trams or buses left or circulated within Algiers, employees of the companies running those networks told AFP on Sunday morning.
Around 1,000 highschool students gathered peacefully in central Algiers, while others marched in cities elsewhere.
Bouteflika has been in power since 1999 and his rare public appearances since his stroke have been in a wheelchair.
Most shops in the capital’s commercial centre were closed on Sunday, an AFP journalist said.
Residents said shops were also closed in the poor district of Bab el Oued and in the suburb of Zeralda, but they were open in other areas.
As the protest strike continued, students and teachers occupied a number of universities, defying the education ministry’s ruling a day earlier to bring holidays forward.
– ‘Free and democratic!’ –
Students have been at the heart of protests and a decision to start spring break on Sunday — instead of March 21 — will affect many whose family homes are far from campuses which are set to close over the holidays.
“Algeria free and democratic!” cried students at the University of Science and Technology Houari Boumediene in Algiers, where around 2,000 gathered to rally against the holiday decision and to keep up their protest against Bouteflika.
The opposition to the president shows that “the Bouteflika system is broken and that it will break up”, said former prime minister Ali Benflis, in an interview with France’s Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
But while businesses were shut and protests continued in Algiers, in the second city Oran all the shops in the commercial centre opened.
“We don’t have the impression that there’s a general strike,” a journalist for Algerian media said from the city.
Another local reporter said half of businesses were closed in Constantine, Algeria’s third city, adding that highschool students had taken to the streets there.
“Everything is closed” in the city of Bejaia in the Kabylie region, Achour Idir, a trade unionist in the education sector, told AFP.
He said the city was in “total paralysis” due to high schools, colleges, government offices and businesses closing.
Local news site TSA said strikes by workers had brought sugar and oil production “to a halt” at the privately-owned Cevital firm, and also hit several sectors at state-owned oil giant Sonatrach.