Algerians demand sweeping change as Bouteflika era ends

2019-04-04 11:14
People take to the street to celebrate after ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika quits. (Anis Belghoul, AP)

People take to the street to celebrate after ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika quits. (Anis Belghoul, AP)

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Flag-waving Algerians have celebrated the resignation of veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but vowed on Wednesday to keep protesting to demand sweeping change to the country's political system.

The 82-year-old's departure, announced on state media late on Tuesday, followed weeks of massive demonstrations that have shaken the North African nation.

Car horns sounded on the streets before jubilant crowds converged in the centre of the capital Algiers to cheer his departure.

Many Algerians have never known any president other than Bouteflika, who held power for two decades but was rarely seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

Protesters in Algiers welcomed his departure but said they were determined to continue demonstrating, rejecting any transition that leaves power in the hands of the "system".

"I want my daughter to remember this historic day. Bouteflika's gone, but it's far from over," said 35-year-old Amal, who wore a T-shirt with the slogan "I am against the system" and vowed to march again on Friday.

For 44-year-old engineer Hamid Boumaza, Bouteflika's resignation was "too little, too late".

"Bouteflika's departure is no longer enough. We want them all to go. We want full freedom and we will march for as long as necessary."

Others paid tribute to the longtime leader, but regretted that he had clung to power for so long.

"Bouteflika worked. I voted for him at first, but he didn't know how to leave with his head held high," said Bilan Brahim, 40.

'Appeasement of hearts'

Algeria's Constitutional Council said Wednesday it had accepted Bouteflika's resignation and informed parliament that his post was officially vacant.

Algeria's constitution says that once the president officially resigns, the speaker of the upper house of parliament, currently 77-year-old Abdelkader Bensalah, acts as interim leader for up to 90 days during which a presidential election must be organised.

Algeria has largely avoided the turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings that brought down rulers in neighbouring Tunisia and Libya.

But discontent, particularly among the young, turned to anger after Bouteflika announced in February that he would seek a fifth term in office in an election that had been scheduled for this month.

He dropped his bid in the face of the mass protests but also postponed the vote, angering Algerians who saw the move as a ploy to stay in power.

As pressure mounted, state television announced late on Tuesday that Bouteflika had submitted his resignation to the Constitutional Council.

The decision aimed "to contribute to the appeasement of the hearts and minds of my compatriots, to allow them to take Algeria towards a better future to which they legitimately aspire", his resignation letter read.

Footage showed Bouteflika, dressed in a beige North African tunic and sitting in his wheelchair, handing the letter to the council's head, Tayeb Belaiz.

Although credited with helping foster peace after Algeria's decade-long civil war, Bouteflika has faced criticism for alleged authoritarianism.

His former prime minister-turned-rival Ali Benflis said his departure was the "woeful epilogue" to two decades of "immense mess" and praised the protest movement as "a peaceful people's revolution that has restored our national pride and the admiration of the world".

Calls for 'democratic transition'

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised "the mature and calm nature in which the Algerian people have been expressing their desire for change", said a UN statement.

"He looks forward to a peaceful and democratic transition process that reflects the wishes of the Algerian people," it added.

The United States said the future of Algeria was now up to its people.

"Questions about how to navigate this transition in Algeria, that is for the Algerian people to decide," State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino told reporters.

Russia, a longtime ally of Algeria, called for a transition without foreign "interference".

The foreign minister of former colonial power France, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said he was confident Algeria's "democratic transition" could continue "in the same spirit of calm and responsibility" seen in recent weeks.

The resignation came shortly after the military demanded impeachment proceedings against Bouteflika.

Armed forces chief Ahmed Gaid Salah said the army's "sole ambition" was to "protect the people from a handful of (other) people who have unduly taken over the wealth of the Algerian people".

A long-time Bouteflika ally, the military chief last week urged the president to resign or be declared unfit to rule, becoming one of the first of his longtime supporters to abandon him.

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Read more on:    abdelaziz bouteflika  |  algeria  |  north africa
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