Algerian lawmakers appointed a regime stalwart as the country’s first new president in two decades Tuesday, dismaying protesters seeking sweeping change after the resignation of veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The election of upper house speaker Abdelkader Bensalah as interim president follows constitutional rules but goes against the demands of demonstrators, who are pushing for him and other top politicians to stand down.
“I want to work towards fulfilling the interests of the people,” Bensalah, a trusted ally of Bouteflika, told parliament on taking up the 90-day interim presidency.
“It’s a great responsibility that the constitution demands of me,” the 77-year-old added.
Opposition parties refused to back the appointment of the seasoned establishment insider and boycotted the session, as thousands of students protested against him in Algiers.
“They haven’t heard us, we will continue to march!” they shouted, clutching hand-written placards and Algerian flags.
For the first time in seven weeks police in the capital fired tear gas to try to disperse the protest by students, who were also hit with water cannon.
“Peaceful, peaceful,” they chanted, raising their arms in the air as they were surrounded by police.
The students were echoing calls made Friday — in the first weekly mass protest since Bouteflika announced his departure after losing the military’s support — when Algerians demanded regime insiders be excluded from the political transition.
“Bensalah, Bouteflika, it’s the same thing!” said 20-year-old Roumaissa, an Algerian flag draped around her shoulders during Tuesday’s student protest.
Ahead of Bensalah’s appointment, an editorial in pro-government daily El Moudjahid suggested he should step aside from the presidential post.
He is “not tolerated by the citizen movement, which demands his immediate departure,” or by the opposition and various political groups in both houses of parliament, the newspaper said.
– ‘Wealth of Algeria’ –
Three men in particular have drawn demonstrators’ ire: Bensalah, the head of the constitutional council Tayeb Belaiz and prime minister Noureddine Bedoui.
The protest movement is calling for a new transitional framework that is committed to deep reforms and organising free elections.
Human Rights Watch said Bouteflika’s departure is “at most a first step in ending autocratic rule.”
“During any transitional phase, authorities should fully respect the rights of Algerians to speak, assemble and associate with one another,” the watchdog said in a statement.
Algerians of all ages have rallied since late February against Bouteflika, who resigned a week ago after efforts to appease demonstrators proved fruitless.
Facing endemic unemployment, young Algerians are hoping the protest movement can ultimately improve their prospects.
“It must change. Today, young people in Algeria are without a future,” said Yassine, a 21-year-old studying technology.
Although Bouteflika’s resignation was celebrated by demonstrators, they have remained firm in pushing for a wider overhaul of the political system.
Rabea, a physics teacher, said the country’s youth are “the wealth of Algeria”.
“It’s them who will make the future of the country, they must be listened to,” she said.