Abdelkader Bensalah

Thousands of people have gathered in the Algerian capital calling on interim President Abdelkader Bensalah to quit after he vowed to stay in power until a new head of state was elected.

Carrying banners reading “You all go” and “We need new figures”, protesters packed central Algiers on Friday for the 16th consecutive week demanding the removal of the ruling elite.

Bensalah, speaker of the upper house, was elected by parliament to lead the North African country when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika quit on April 2 in the face of widespread protests against his 20-year rule.

Elections were set for July 4, under constitutional rules that state a presidential election must be held within 90 days, but Algeria’s constitutional council on Sunday called off the vote citing a lack of candidates.

No new date has been set, and the council has suggested Bensalah’s mandate be extended. The 77-year-old politician on Thursday called for “inclusive dialogue” to prepare for an election.

But the protesters have been staunchly against presidential polls being held as long as the current leaders, which they accuse of having links to Bouteflika, remain in power.

One banner held up by protesters read: “Bensalah go”.

They also called on army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah – who has become the country’s power broker – to “clear off” as police deployed massively across the centre of the capital.

“We will not tolerate Bensalah,” protester Ismail Omrani said. “He will not remain the head of the state as he said yesterday.”

Hamid, a civil servant, added that any dialogue “should be with the real holder of power, and that means the army. Bensalah does not make the decisions”.

‘Masquerade’

Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Centre based in Beirut, told the AFP news agency that the protesters won points with the cancellation of the July 4 elections.

But on the other hand, she said, the planned polls “were a non-event because from a logistical point of view it would have been impossible to organise the elections”.

While Gaid Salah had pushed for the polls, July 4 looked increasingly implausible as no major party nominated a candidate.

A major obstacle emerged when some mayors and magistrates said they would not take part in organising the elections.

The two unknown figures who put themselves forward – Abdelhakim Hamadi and Hamid Touahri – had not been expected to gather the necessary 60 000 voter signatures to validate their bid for office.

Yazbeck said “no one wants to run in the election and take part in this masquerade, and it is clear that the authorities cannot agree on a candidate to represent them”.

“The authorities are improvising. There are no long term solutions and despite what they thought, the [protest] movement is not petering out,” she added.

Algerians have been demonstrating since February, after Bouteflika announced plans to seek a fifth term in office.

Since his resignation, the army, the country’s most powerful institution, has met a number of protesters’ demands including launching anti-graft probes against people suspected of misuse of power and public funds.

Last month, Bouteflika’s youngest brother, Said, and two former intelligence chiefs were placed in custody by a military judge over allegations of “harming the army’s authority and plotting against state authority”.

At least five businessmen, including the country’s richest man, Issad Rebrab, who is active in the food industry and sugar refining, have been detained for alleged involvement in corruption scandals.

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