Algeria‘s Constitutional Council formalized President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s departure Wednesday from the office he held for two decades, as rattled international partners watched closely to see what’s next for an energy-rich country that is a key player in fighting terrorism.
Bouteflika himself asked the Algerians people for forgiveness the day after he stepped down following weeks of protests and the loss of the army’s support. He urged citizens in a farewell letter “to stay united, and never divide yourselves.”
Algerians faced a new and uncertain era, after the resignation of a man who had ruled Algeria for 20 years and had been a fixture in the Arab world’s political landscape for decades.
A discreet, 77-year-old Bouteflika ally — the president of the upper house of the Algerian Parliament, Abdelkader Bensalah — is expected to take over as interim leader while Algeria plans elections. But that might further anger the protesters who drove Bouteflika from power, and who want to overhaul a political system seen as secretive, elitist and corrupt.
“Our session today is related to establishing the vacancy of the post of president of the republic, following the resignation of Mr. Abdelaziz Bouteflika yesterday,” said Constitutional Council president Tayeb Belaiz at Wednesday’s meeting.
The 12-member body then formally notified Parliament that Algeria no longer has a president. Both chambers of the national legislature are expected to meet to name the president of the upper house as interim leader for 90 days while elections are organized.
A much-diminished Bouteflika, 82, appeared on images shown on national television Tuesday night handing his resignation letter to the Constitutional Council president. Bouteflika, who hasn’t spoken publicly to the nation since a 2013 stroke, appeared pale and weak and wore a traditional robe instead of his habitual suits.
But he also said, “I am leaving the political scene without sadness or fear, for the future of our country.” He said he hoped Algeria’s new leaders take the nation to “horizons of progress and prosperity.”
Women and young people, who led the protest movement that pressured him out of office, are “the beating heart of our nation” and deserve special attention, Bouteflika wrote.
He notably praised those who fought alongside him for Algeria’s independence from colonial France and urged Algerians to live up to their example and honor their sacrifices.
Algerian protesters celebrated his departure with songs and flag-waving in the capital Tuesday night.
New protests are already planned for Friday, after six straight Fridays of massive, peaceful gatherings that surprised the entrenched leadership by their strength and persistence.
Bensalah, the man expected to serve as interim leader, has led the upper house for most of Bouteflika’s four terms. A one-time journalist and former ambassador, Bensalah has held senior political positions for the past 25 years but has kept a low profile, rarely giving interviews or appearing at public events.
He’s known as a politician who works behind the scenes to strike compromises and solve problems, and who avoids controversial debates — and is very much part of the political elite.
Demonstrators worry that those who would play a role in the political transition are too close to the distrusted power structure, including Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, accused of contributing to fraud in the last presidential election in 2014 and cracking down on past protests.
However, the protest movement doesn’t have a single, unifying alternative to the current political system.
Another question is what the influential military and Bouteflika’s entourage will do next. Military chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah appeared to trigger Bouteflika’s departure by pushing to get him declared unfit for office.
Countries around the world are watching Algeria’s political crisis, wondering whether a transfer of power could impact gas and oil deliveries to Europe, Cuba and around Africa — or crucial security cooperation with Europe and the U.S.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned against foreign interference in Algerian politics and said Wednesday that “we hope the internal processes in that country … will by no means affect the friendly nature of our relations.” Algeria’s foreign minister recently visited Russia, and the countries have been economic and geopolitical allies since the Soviet era.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed hope that Algerians would “pursue this democratic transition in the same spirit of calm and responsibility” that has marked the protests that drove Bouteflika from office. France, Algeria’s former colonial ruler and a key trading partner, had come under fire for seeming to support Bouteflika earlier in the movement.
The U.S. State Department, which has expressed support for the peaceful protests, said it’s now up to Algerians to decide the next steps. Since fighting an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, Algeria has cooperated closely with the U.S. and Europe against terrorism.
The United Nations — where Bouteflika often defended Third World countries as Algerian foreign minister in the 1960s and 1970s — offered Algeria support in its transition. The U.N. said Wednesday that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “salutes the mature and calm nature in which the Algerian people have been expressing their desire for change.”
In Sudan, organizers behind months of anti-government demonstrations expressed hope that Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir would follow Bouteflika’s footsteps.
Sarah Abdel-Jaleel, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Bouteflika’s resignation shows the “success of peaceful resistance within Africa.” She says it “definitely gives us all hope and reassurance that we must continue.”