- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

ROME | The Middle East appears to have yet another leader for life - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Algerian lawmakers Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to abolish a two-term limit for president, allowing the 71-year-old to run again in April.

The official El Moudjahid newspaper said that lawmakers, who recently received a pay increase from the government, responded to a “popular demand.”

“Algerians have asked Abdelaziz Bouteflika to continue making a sacrifice for Algeria,” the Algiers daily said.

The measure passed by 500 votes out of 529, more than the three-quarters majority required from the joint session of upper and lower houses.

Supporters say Mr. Bouteflika, one of the last survivors of the leadership of the National Liberation Front that wrested independence from France in 1962 after a nine-year war, is the best person to keep the country from descending back into civil war between Islamist guerrillas and security forces, which killed 200,000 people in the 1990s.

But the changes seem likely to put Mr. Bouteflika in the same category as many Arab leaders, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and the late Hafez al-Assad of Syria, who all ruled for decades.

Most other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are ruled by unelected monarchs.

Security was extraordinarily tight in Algiers, the capital, ahead of the vote. On Monday, police arrested four militants from the opposition Democratic and Social Movement (MDS) including rap singer Direm Amine, who defied a ban on public demonstrations to distribute leaflets opposing the amendment of the constitution, the independent French-language El Watan newspaper reported.

“Change in Algeria - also possible,” said a slogan on one leaflet that the daily said referred to the U.S. election result.

Saad Saadi, veteran leader of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy party, said, “we are living through a disguised coup d’etat,” adding that “November 12 will remain a black day in history” for Algerians.

Previous important changes in Algeria often were put to a popular referendum, but Mr. Bouteflika said that was unnecessary this time.

Mr. Bouteflika became president in 1999 with the support of the army, widely seen as the main power broker in the second-largest country in Africa, after a political campaign tarnished by fraud that led six other contenders to withdraw on the eve of the vote.

His re-election in 2004 by a landslide was viewed by international observers as largely fair and free. However, Mr. Bouteflika’s popularity has suffered over what critics see as his failure to use the country’s vast oil and gas wealth to improve the lot of ordinary Algerians while corruption remains widespread.

The army has failed to eradicate al Qaeda’s North African wing, which has staged dramatic suicide attacks in the capital.

Mr. Bouteflika gets solid support from much of the Francophone middle class, who see him and his sponsors in the military as a bulwark against a resurgence of mass Islamist militancy.

Algeria’s civil conflict erupted in 1992 after the Army staged a takeover and canceled democratic elections that the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win.

Mr. Bouteflika has not said specifically that he will run again but in a speech Oct. 29 said the constitutional change would endow the “institutional system with the bases of stability, efficacy and continuity.”

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