World

'Out with Bensalah,' protesters shout as Algeria names him interim president

Algeria's parliament appoints its upper house chairman Abdelkader Bensalah as interim president following the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika after weeks of mass protests against his rule.

Abdelkader Bensalah is close associate of former president Bouteflika

Algerian upper house chairman Abdelkader Bensalah was named interim president following the resignation of longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika. (Ramzi Boudina/Reuters)

Algeria's parliament appointed on Tuesday its upper house chairman Abdelkader Bensalah as interim president following the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika after weeks of mass protests against his rule.

His appointment is in keeping with Algeria's constitution, which puts a maximum of 90 days for interim postings until a new election can be organized.

"I am required by national duty to take on this heavy responsibility of steering a transition that will allow the Algerian people to exercise its sovereignty," Bensalah said.

He also promised to organize free elections within the 90 days in a televised speech to the nation on Tuesday.

But protesters, who want sweeping democratic reforms, oppose figures like Bensalah, a close associate of Bouteflika and his inner circle who dominated Algeria for decades.

Shortly after the announcement in parliament, hundreds of people, mostly students, protested in central Algiers, some chanting "Bensalah, go." Algerian police later fired pepper spray and a water cannon to break up the group of protesting students.

"We are against the nomination of Bensalah. The people has stated its will many times, we will stick to this and won't change our minds. We are not going to stop, to rest or to give up at all," said protester Mohammed Bouraoui.
 
The protesters held creative signs, including one woman carrying a sign reading, "I'm a student in oceanic studies, and my nation is drowning in a sea of corruption."

Military response

The big question is how Algeria's powerful military — long seen as a kingmaker in Algerian politics — will react to Bensalah's appointment and any opposition that arises.

The Defence Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that the army will work to ensure "the Algerian people's legitimate right to enjoy total tranquility for the present and the future."
 
The much-awaited but inconclusive statement suggests the army will wait to see if there are new mass protests on Friday before deciding whether to throw its support behind Bensalah or not. The statement didn't specifically address Bensalah's appointment.

People chant slogans and carry a banner during a protest after parliament appointed upper house chairman Abdelkader Bensalah as interim president following the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers on Tuesday. The banner reads, "Bensalah, not fit". (Ramzi Boudina/Reuters)

Army chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gaid Salah carefully managed Bouteflika's exit, which came after six weeks of mostly peaceful demonstrations.

Salah has expressed support for protesters, who want democratic reforms after almost 60 years of monolithic rule by veterans of the 1954-62 independence war against France.

With Bouteflika out, protesters are mainly focusing their anger on other key figures, dubbed the "three Bs": Bensalah, Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui and the head of the Constitutional Council, Tayeb Belaiz.
 
"Out with Bensalah, Belaiz and Bedoui!" shouted protesters at Tuesday's rally in Algiers, which converged at the plaza in front of the main post office, a symbol of the country's pro-democracy movement.
 
Bensalah, 77, has cultivated a low-key profile despite holding numerous positions over the past quarter-century. With a career as a devoted public servant, he has no political weight, and his powers as transitional leader are reduced. 
 
Bedoui has a starkly different profile. He was among the early promoters of a fifth mandate for the ailing Bouteflika — the trigger for the crisis. Mohamed Saidj, a political science professor, says that as interior minister, Bedoui also was behind forbidding doctors and human rights organizations from protesting. 
 
As for Belaiz, "everyone knows that he is Bouteflika's man," Saidj said in a recent interview.

With files from The Associate Press