A man carries a national flag during a protest against Abdelkader Bensalah in Algiers on Wednesday. Reuters
ALGIERS: Algerian demonstrators kept up protests on Wednesday against the ruling elite despite a pledge from the interim head of state to hold “transparent” presidential elections following veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation.
The army weighed in with assurances of its own, vowing to guarantee “transparency and integrity” during the transition. But it also warned against attempts to “destabilise” the country.
Chants of “Go away Bensalah!” and “A free Algeria!” rang out from early morning from thousands of demonstrators gathered under police surveillance in the capital’s May 1 Square and near the Grand Post Office, epicentres of anti-regime rallies over the past seven weeks.
Meanwhile, the French government on Wednesday said it “regrets” the move by Algerian authorities to expel an Agence France-Presse journalist from Algiers after they refused to renew his press accreditation for 2019.
“We regret this decision and reiterate our commitment to freedom of the press and the protection of journalists,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said in a statement.
Aymeric Vincenot, AFP’s bureau chief in Algiers since June 2017, was forced to leave the capital late Tuesday after the end of a final delay granted by the police following the expiration of his visa.
The authorities had refused to renew his press accreditation since late last year.
AFP’s chief executive Fabrice Fries on Tuesday called Vincenot’s expulsion “unacceptable,” saying that “it is out of the question, in such conditions, to name a new chief of the Algiers bureau for the time being.”
Lawmakers on Tuesday selected upper house speaker Abdelkader Bensalah as Algeria’s first new president in 20 years in line with constitutional rules, but the appointment failed to meet the demands of demonstrators pushing for the whole of Bouteflika’s entourage to stand down.
Bensalah, 77, a close ally of Bouteflika and key figure of his regime, pledged to organise a “transparent” presidential election within 90 days as laid out by the constitution, which bars him from running.
But students and magistrates on Wednesday called for demonstrators to keep up their rallies and marches in Tunis and cities across the North African country.
Army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah, quoted in a defence ministry statement, said the military would ensure the transition follows the “rules of transparency and integrity, and the laws of the republic.”
But he warned against “slogans aimed at leading the country to a constitutional void and destroying state institutions.”
“With the start of the new phase and continued marches, we deplore the emergence of attempts by certain foreign parties to destabilise the country”, he said, without pointing fingers.
The army chief also signalled that the military would safeguard Algeria’s institutions.
“It is unreasonable to manage the transition period without the institutions,” Salah said, warning that such a scenario “could compromise all that has been achieved to this day since independence” from France in 1962.
For the first time in the wave of demonstrations which have swept Algiers since mid-February, police fired tear gas and water cannons Tuesday to try to disperse a protest by students.
“What happened yesterday was a violation of our right to demonstrate,” said 22-year-old journalism student Asma. “We’ll carry on every day if needed until the last of the (ruling) clan is out.”
Since Bouteflika announced his resignation on April 2 after losing the military’s support, the demonstrators have urged that regime insiders be excluded from the political transition.
All eyes are now focused on the turnout on the streets on Friday, the traditional day of protests in Algeria, and whether the authorities will adopt a tougher line and step up security measures.
For Mohamed Hennad, a political sciences professor at the University of Algiers, “the balance of forces will favour the street if it’s a large mobilisation on Friday” as in past weeks.
But the appointment of Bensalah despite the protesters’ opposition could signal “a change in the position of the authorities towards the demonstrators”, according to Oran newspaper.