By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, March 11 () - More than 1,000 judges said they would refuse to oversee Algeria's election if President Abdelaziz Bouteflika contests it, a challenge that drew a sharp retort from the justice minister on Monday who said the judiciary should be neutral.
In a statement, the judges added their voice to anti-Bouteflika protests now in their third week by announcing the formation of a new association "to restore the gift of justice". Bouteflika returned to Algeria on Sunday after undergoing medical treatment in Switzerland.
Judges should join an effort to "declare that we are the people", the judges said in a statement.
Algerian Justice Minister Tayeb Louh, a member of Bouteflika's inner circle, said judges should remain neutral.
"The independence and integrity of the judge must be consistent whatever the reasons," Ennahar TV quoted him as saying.
The 82-year-old Bouteflika faces the toughest fight of his 20-year-old rule, following a tenure in which he became the north African country's most powerful president in 30 years.
In another setback for the veteran president, who plans to stand in elections in April, clerics told the minister of religious affairs to stop pressuring them to issue pro-government sermons.
"Leave us to do our job, do not interfere," cleric Imam Djamel Ghoul, leader of an independent group of clerics, said in remarks to reporters.
Algerians from all social classes have rejected his plan to secure a fifth term in April, a move protesters feel would perpetuate a stale political system dominated by veterans of an independence war against France that ended in 1962.
"Bouteflika is back, we delivered a message, we need a response, and we need a response now," pharmacist Mouloud Mohamed, 29, told .
The secretive military-based establishment known to Algerians as "le pouvoir" (the powers-that-be) appears to have stood aside while the demonstrations have taken place.
In Algiers, tens of unionists staged a protest rally outside the headquarters of the main union, UGTA, calling on its leader Abdelmadjid Sidi Said, a Bouteflika ally, to resign.
NO CLEAR REPLACEMENT
The veteran head of state has rarely been seen in public since a stroke in 2013. Last April, he appeared in Algiers in a wheelchair.
Young Algerians are desperate for jobs and angry about unemployment and corruption, and complain that their leaders still dwell on the victory over France instead of improving living standards for the future.
In the clearest indication yet that the generals sympathise with protesters, the chief of staff said the military and the people had a united vision of the future, state TV reported. Lieutenant General Gaed Salah did not mention the unrest.
His ruling FLN party urged all sides to work together to end the crisis and promote national reconciliation, Ennahar TV said. But some of its members have quit and supported the demonstrations.
Even if Bouteflika is forced from office, there is no clear replacement, raising the strong possibility that the ruling elite, dominated by veterans of the war of independence against rance and their allies, will stay in place.
For years, rumours have swirled about potential successors, but no one credible has emerged who has the backing of the army and the elite and is not at least 70.
The protests come four years after Bouteflika consolidated his position by dismissing military intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene, a rival once seen as Algeria's "Kingmaker", a move many expected would allow the president to step aside for an ally.
Bouteflika's dismissal of the general was the culmination of a struggle to impose his authority on military intelligence, a leading player in the civil war of the 1990s, and make the presidency the true centre of national power.
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