By Hamid Ould Ahmed
ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algeria’s army chief of staff called on Tuesday for a constitutional procedure that would see President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika declared unfit for office, arguing this would meet the demands of protesters seeking an end to his 20-year rule.
Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, addressing army officers in a speech broadcast on two private Algerian TV stations, called for a unified stand to resolve the crisis, which has seen weeks of mass anti-government protests.
Salah said the solution would be based on Article 102 of the constitution and achieve a consensus of “all visions and parties”. That article applies under certain conditions, such as deteriorating health. Bouteflika, 82, has rarely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.
The next formal step is for the constitutional council to formally to declare Bouteflika unfit for office, a decision that members of parliament’s lower and upper house need to ratify by a two-thirds majority.
Based on Article 102, the chairman of parliament’s upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, would serve as caretaker president for at least 45 days.
El Bilad television said the constitutional council had convened in special session after Salah’s move.
Algeria’s powerful military had avoided direct intervention until now, patiently monitoring the unrest from the sidelines, although warning it would not tolerate chaos in the vast North African state, a major oil and natural gas exporter.
Bouteflika, among the veterans of the 1954-62 war of independence against France who continue to dominate Algeria, has bowed to protesters by reversing a decision to seek another term and putting off elections that had been set for April.
But his gesture failed to defuse growing anger in the streets, for he stopped short of quitting as head of state and said he would stay on until a new constitution is adopted, effectively extending his current term.
“In this context it became necessary, even imperative, to find a solution to end the crisis that responds to the legitimate demands of the Algerian people and which quarantines the rules of the constitution,” Salah was quoted by the state news agency APS as saying.
Thousands of people had returned to the streets of the capital Algiers earlier on Tuesday calling on Bouteflika to resign, keeping up popular pressure.
“The system must go. There is no point for it in resisting,” said Belkacem Abidi, 25, one of about 6,000 protesters, mostly students, who gathered in downtown Algiers on Tuesday.
Algerians will face uncertainty for some time before a new president emerges. One of the most important factors is the position of the military, which could act as kingmaker, as it has done in past decades.
“I’m optimistic that our pressure will change things peacefully,” said architect Noureddine Bahi, 52.
(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)