ALGIERS – The Constitutional Council of Algeria accepted on Wednesday the resignation of ailing octogenarian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, after weeks of nationwide protests against his 20-year rule.
The council, chaired by Tayeb Belaiz, declared the office of president vacant in an official statement, adding that a transition period will begin after communicating the declaration to parliament.
It was met with mass demonstrations of joy across the North African country, yet many pundits and onlookers cautioned the public about the future as many of Bouteflika’s inner circle remains in power.
Later in the day, Bouteflika, 82, apologized to Algerians in a letter published by the Algerian state-run press service, in which also he defended his 20 years of rule as a mandate from the people.
“Although I did step down from my duty (as a president), I would like to seek forgiveness from those who have been deprived, unwillingly, although I have been keen to be a servant to all Algerians without distinction or exception,” the letter said.
Government strongman, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, called for the immediate application of three constitutional articles allowing officials to declare the head of state unfit to rule on Tuesday.
Bouteflika’s resignation came as a surprise because it was announced just a day after he said he would leave office before April 28, the last day of his fourth term.
According to the constitution, the head of parliament’s upper house, Abdelkader Bensaleh, is set to serve as interim president for a maximum of 90 days to organize fresh presidential elections.
Students cheered the departure of Bouteflika and his inner circle, as social leaders warned that Algerians will protest on Friday.
The campaigners first demanded the president renounce his fifth term in office in the presidential polls that were originally scheduled for April 18, a demand which Bouteflika yielded to March 11.
His withdrawal was accompanied by a postponement of the balloting which sparked suspicions that he was maneuvering to remain in power beyond the end of his current mandate.
Protesters then took to the streets to call for the removal of the whole regime, including Gaid Salah.
Like Gaid Salah and the rest of the military brass, Bouteflika fought in Algeria’s war for independence from France and became a confidant of Col. Houari Boumediene (1932-1978), who governed the North African nation from 1965 until he died of a rare blood disorder at 56 years of age.
Bouteflika fell from favor after Boumediene’s death and went into self-imposed exile until 1987.
While his role during the army’s 1989-1999 war against Islamists – blamed for nearly 300,000 deaths – remains unclear, Bouteflika won the 1999 presidential election with backing from the military.
The upsurge of opposition to the president began with protests at soccer matches before spilling onto the streets of the capital and then spreading to other cities.
Though students spearheaded the mobilization, they were later joined by medical professionals, lawyers, judges and even members of the political class.