ALGIERS, ALGERIA - Algeria’s interim leader has announced Dec. 12 as the date for the presidential election, in line with the army chief’s demand to fill the vacancy left when longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika was pushed from office more than five months ago.
Abdelkader Bensallah during an address to the North African nation Sunday night called on citizens to make Dec. 12 “an historic day to make the dreams of our people concrete.”
The powerful army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, has been pushing for elections as quickly as possible and even named Sunday as the date to announce them.
A pro-democracy movement holding weekly protests since February wants time to organize elections that ensure all traces of the old system are gone.
Bensallah took office as interim leader after Bouteflika, rarely seen since a 2013 stroke, was pushed out by protests in April following 20 years in power. Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term triggered the demonstrations.
The interim leader has overstayed his constitutional time limit of 90 days. In his address, he said elections will return the oil- and gas-rich country to “constitutional legality and allow our people to choose its future president freely and sovereignly.”
Bensallah last week pushed through two electoral measures, including the creation of a body to oversee the voting process, and parliament quickly gave its approval. While the body is said to be independent, the person chosen Sunday to lead it is a former justice minister long linked to past administrations, including Bouteflika’s.
The army chief has said the political vacuum in Africa’s largest country must be filled with an elected president, and contended that the protesters are being manipulated by enemies from within and without.
That Bensallah followed through as he demanded suggests that the army, which has run the country at least from behind the scenes since independence, maintains its hold on political life.
Police, meanwhile, have increasingly cracked down on protesters. More than two dozen arrested during Friday’s march were jailed, their lawyers told the TSA online media outlet. Karim Tabou, 51, a well-known figure in the movement, was jailed Friday on charges of undermining the military, causing concern among opposition politicians and protesters.
Numerous other citizens have been jailed since the Feb. 22 start of the peaceful demonstrations aimed at ridding Algeria of the Bouteflika era, mired in corruption. Among those jailed are people waving regional flags and, shocking for many, a veteran of Algeria’s independence war with France that ended in 1962.
Protesters now demand that “political prisoners” be set free and many chant for the army chief to leave.
Gaid Salah is widely believed to be behind the crackdown, which also has seen Bouteflika’s inner circle, including his brother Said, along with two once-powerful intelligence officials, jailed on treason charges. Many of the nation’s top industrialists also are behind bars on corruption charges.