Algeria’s 82-year-old president returned to the North African country Sunday after spending two weeks in a Swiss hospital amid massive demonstrations demanding he drop his bid for a fifth five-year term.
Bouteflika, who rarely has been seen in public since he suffered a stroke in 2013, arrived at a military airport near Boufarik, about 20 miles south of Algiers, and was shown by private television station Ennahar in a fast-moving convoy heading toward the suburb of Zeralda where he lives. He could be seen inside a car slightly bent over with a cap on his head.
The official APS news agency confirmed that the president had returned home “after a private visit to Geneva … during which he underwent periodic medical tests.”
Bouteflika’s decision to enter the April 18 election angered large swathes of Algerian society. The president’s plane touched down in the midst of a general strike, with numerous shops in the capital and other cities closed. Thousands of members of the Algerian diaspora protested in Paris and other French cities, while protests also were held in neighboring Rabat, Morocco.
The protests trickled down to middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, with several hundred marching in the center of Algiers, also calling for Bouteflika to withdraw his candidacy.
“Since I was born, the only (president) I’ve known is Bouteflika,” said Amina, a young protesting girl who asked not to give her full name.
“These kids don’t have any political calculations,” said a mother on the sidelines of the protest, Karim Ziad. “They’re just 13-year-old kids.”
In response to the demonstrations, the National Liberation Front — the top Algerian party backing Bouteflika — said it was ready to work with all parties to end the crisis “with the least cost to the country.”
Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah added his voice, saying Sunday that the army and the people “have the same vision of the future.”
Bouteflika, first elected in 1999, is the first civilian president of the North African nation except for a short term by Ahmed Ben Bella after Algeria won its independence from France in 1962. He was deposed in a bloodless military coup in 1965 that set the stage for a series of generals serving as presidents.
Peaceful nationwide protests against Bouteflika have taken place since Feb. 22, but the biggest demonstration to date took place Friday when hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Algiers to call for change. Similar marches were held across the country.
In addition to the end of Bouteflika’s tenure, the protesters also have called for an end to the country’s power structure, which centers on a coterie of people who have grown rich under Bouteflika and are thought to exert pressure on the presidency.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.