Protests continue in Algeria as ally of ousted president takes over as interim leader

The controversy surrounding the Bouteflika allies’ roles in politics underscores a major divide in Algeria.

TUNIS - Tens of thousands marched in cities across Algeria stating opposition to the nomination of Algerian Senate President Abdelkader Bensalah as interim head of state.

Bensalah, an associate of ousted Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was named interim president April 9, putting protesters seeking an immediate overhaul of the country's political system on a collision course with ruling elites trying to carry out a managed transition.

Marching in Algiers on April 9, protesters chanted: "laa amaan oula theeka fi bakayya Bouteflika" (“No confidence, no trust in the remnants of Bouteflika.”)

State television showed Bensalah receiving a gracious welcome at the presidential palace from Bouteflika's former advisers and aides. However, notably missing was Said Bouteflika, the former president’s powerful brother who is believed to have made major policy decisions behind the scenes.

With Abdelaziz Bouteflika out, protesters focused their ire on the government’s political elites, dubbed the "Three Bs": Bensalah, Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui and Constitutional Council President Tayeb Belaiz.

The three men are to oversee upcoming presidential elections, which, under the constitution, must take place within 90 days, which would set the vote for early July.

"Out with Bensalah, Belaiz and Bedoui!" shouted protesters April 9 in Algiers and other cities in Algeria.

In nominating Bensalah, parliament was following the lead of army Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who urged the country's leaders to abide by the constitutional framework.

Gaid Salah, who had come out in support of the protest movement against Bouteflika after publicly defending the former president for years, did not directly comment on Bensalah’s nomination.

However, the Defence Ministry said in a statement that the army would work to ensure "the Algerian people's legitimate right to enjoy total tranquillity for the present and the future."

Bensalah, 77, has maintained a low profile despite his long political career. Joining the National Liberation Army at 17, he later became a public servant. In the 1990s, he headed the National Transition Council after the army scrapped general elections in which Islamists had taken the lead.

Bedoui and Belaiz, also at the centre of protests, have strikingly different profiles.

Belaiz, 70, has been a close ally of Bouteflika since 1999, when the Bouteflika tasked him with reforming the judiciary system. Belaiz was later justice minister before serving as Bouteflika's top adviser. He was appointed head of the Constitutional Council in February to lend credibility to Bouteflika's candidacy fopr a fifth term as president.

Belaiz retained his position after Bouteflika's ouster and pushed for one of nephews, Hassane Rabehi, to serve as government spokesman and communication minister.

Bedoui, 59, was among the first to promote Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office, which triggered the crisis. He was charged with moving Bouteflika's candidacy forward even when the president was seeking medical care abroad. Algerian law requires a candidate to personally submit candidacy documentation to be eligible to run.

The controversy surrounding the Bouteflika allies’ roles in politics underscores a major divide in Algeria. One camp wants quick, radical change that would purge the government of old regime figures and the other seeks a gradual transition within the constitutional framework that would ensure stability.

Gaid Salah, who exerts vast influence over the powerful military and has voiced consistent support for protesters, is viewed as the ultimate arbiter but some analysts doubt leading figures are serious about meeting protesters’ demands.

Political writer Makhlouf Mehenni said that “Bensalah's nomination means a return to square one,” a reference to Bouteflika’s pledge to postpone elections that were rejected by protesters.

Samir Allam, a writer who has voiced support for protesters, said Bensalah’s first address echoed Bouteflika’s remarks about “free and fair elections.”

"Algerians will not be convinced by what he (Bensalah) said because he has no credibility of his own," Allam added.

Protest leaders suggested selecting five independent figures to form a presidential council to lead the country for an interim period while the opposition builds a coalition capable of competing with the old political establishment.

Those leaders argue that if elections occur within 90 days as scheduled, they would be won by parties and associations with entrenched political and financial connections, effectively making them an extension of the old ruling establishment.

"The question is why has the army, which had given hope with its statements backing the change process, stopped midstream, leaving history to take a narrow path with the risks of heavy consequences to stability as it stands against the claims of rapid and broad change claimed by the popular protests," said el Watan newspaper columnist Omar Berbiche.

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.