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Wednesday, April 10, 2019, 17:41
Algeria's interim leader pledges to hold 'honest' election
By Associated Press
Wednesday, April 10, 2019, 17:41 By Associated Press

Abdelkader Bensalah listens while being named interim leader to replace former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Algiers, April 9, 2019. (TOUFIK DOUDOU / AP)

ALGIERS, Algeria — The Algerian senator named to temporarily fill the office vacated by former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said he would act quickly to arrange an "honest and transparent" election to usher in an "Algeria of the future."

The Defense 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"

Abdelkader Bensalah, an ally of Bouteflika's, spoke on national television hours after his appointment as Algeria's interim president brought immediate protests. In the streets of the capital, protesters who want the country's established political hierarchy dismantled shouted, "Out with the system."

Bensalah, the head of the upper house of the Algerian Parliament, vowed to establish a "sovereign" body to organize a presidential election within 90 days. Under That's the constitutional limit for how long he can serve as interim president.

The North African country's influential military stayed silent on the appointment. It said only that it would work to ensure the "tranquility" of the country that was led for two decades by the ailing Bouteflika, 82, before he stepped down a week ago after weeks of nationwide protests and with a push from the chief of the army.

ALSO READ: Algeria parliament names interim leader after protests

Bensalah said the election body would be set up with help from political parties and civil society to lay down conditions for "honest and transparent elections." He can't run for president himself when the election is held.

"It is a sincere and loyal hand that I give you to overcome differences and take part in a historic collective action equal to the challenges... to achieve the supreme goal, lay the groundwork for the Algeria of the future," he told the nation.

There was no immediate reaction to the speech.

Police attempts to disperse a demonstration for students in Algiers, Algeria, April 9, 2019. (MOSA'AB ELSHAMY / AP)

A student protest earlier Tuesday was timed to coincide with the Algerian Parliament's designation of Bensalah as interim president. Members of the opposition abstained from the vote.

"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."

Within an hour, police moved in on the demonstrators, dousing them with pepper spray, shooting bursts from a water cannon and using batons to break up the crowd of thousands on a central avenue.

The clash contrasted with the weeks of overwhelmingly peaceful protests forced Bouteflika to step down last week after 20 years in office.

A pro-democracy movement dominated by young Algerians frustrated by corruption, unemployment and repression has offered them hope. It also raised international concerns about what's next for this energy-rich country that's a key partner in the international fight against terrorism.

The Defense 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 inconclusive statement suggests the army will wait to see if there are more protests on Friday before deciding whether to throw its support behind Bensalah or not. The statement didn't specifically address Bensalah's appointment.

Algeria's powerful army chief, Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, turned against the longtime president last week and sided with the protesters, prompting Bouteflika's resignation. However, many protesters have shown frustration with the army, too.

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. 

READ MORE: Bouteflika's resignation confirmed, Algeria set for polls

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.

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