Algerian protesters have chosen prominent reformist lawyers and rights activists to spearhead popular pressure against what they see as an authoritarian and out of touch ruling system, several activists told Reuters. Opposition activists have dismissed a decision by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not to stand for a fifth term as at a half-measure aimed at placating popular anger and doing nothing to address decades of economic and social malaise.
Algeria's government on Wednesday declared itself ready for talks with the protesters, saying it sought a ruling system based on "the will of the people". But according to one prominent protest leader, talks are not on the agenda, at least for now.
"We refuse to negotiate a transition with the regime. No negotiations," Fodil Boumala, one of the leaders of the demonstrators, told Reuters on Wednesday. "The balance of power is on our side, let's strengthen our movement. We need to maintain pressure for up to three weeks."
Apart from Boumala, 48, a well known intellectual and university professor, emerging protest leaders include former prime minister Ahmed Benbitour, 73, who resigned in 1999 because he disagreed with Bouteflika's economic policies, and Zoubida Assoul, 63, a lawyer and leader of a small political party, activists told Reuters. Among the most prominent is lawyer and human rights activist Mustapha Bouchachi, 67, several activists said.
While no formal vote was taken, activists said the four figures were among a group of prominent Algerians who were taking a leading role in the protest movement and were trusted by those who took to the streets. "Our key goal now is to strengthen the movement so more forces could join and protect the movement from infiltration from Bouteflika's system," Boumala said.
MORE PROTESTS EXPECTED Bouteflika, 82, bowed to weeks of mass demonstrations against his 20-year-long rule on Monday and promised a transition to new leadership. But he postponed an election set for April, meaning he will likely remain in power for some time.
Protesters saw the move as a ruse by officials with a track record of manipulating opposition groups to keep the pillars of the country's military-dominated power structure intact. The initiative has failed to stem the protests, which have been fuelled by anger at unemployment, corruption, poor public services and the failure of a Soviet-style bureaucracy to deliver greater freedoms or stimulate private enterprise.
More large pro-reform protests are set for Friday. "I think Bouteflika did not understand well the message of the demonstrators," Bouchachi told Reuters.
"They said no to elections, no to a fifth term but also no to a government that has in the past fabricated elections." CARETAKER GOVERNMENT
Trust is a major demand among protesters seeking credible interlocutors with what Algerians call 'le pouvoir" (the powers-that-be), an opaque but powerful military-dominated leadership adept at dividing and ruling opposition movements. "I will vote for Bouchachi on Facebook," Hassen Ait Aissi, 41, told Reuters, referring to protesters' online postings about the demonstrations.
"We need and we must have representatives we trust to deal with Bouteflika's people"," Boumala said the country would need a transition period of between 18 to 24 months to make sure new and legitimate institutions could be put in place, and in the meantime, a caretaker government of technocrats would be appointed.
Bouteflika's reform offer included a conference that will chart a new constitution. The conference, to be followed by elections, could take until the end of 2019, he said. The prospect of Bouteflika staying in power that long incensed many Algerians, who recall that the head of state has hinted at wide-ranging political reforms several times as president.
Political sources said veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who is older than Bouteflika, is charged with steering the political process, in which Bouteflika's opponents are expected to have to sit down at some stage with the president's allies. Another player in any talks would be newly appointed Prime Minister Nouredine Bedoui, the sources said.
(With inputs from agencies.)