ALGIERS, ALGERIA — &TC ALGIERS, Algeria -- President Chadli Benjedid announced his resignation yesterday, two weeks after his ruling party was thrashed by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria's first free elections. Army units began to move into the streets of the capital.
The president appeared on national television shortly after 8:30 p.m. presenting his letter of resignation to the president of the Constitutional Council, Abdel Malik Benhabilas.
"Please consider this resignation a sacrifice on my part in the interest of the stability of the nation," the president said in his letter of resignation, which he was shown submitting on a live broadcast.
Mr. Benjedid, whose removal, according to several senior officials here, has been demanded by army commanders, said he was leaving his post after being convinced that the democratic process he started in 1988 had become "riddled with irregularities and cannot be quashed safely."
The fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front won 188 of the 231 seats decided in the first round of parliamentary elections, conducted Dec. 26. The Islamic Front's total left it only 28 seats short of a parliamentary majority, with almost 200 seats still to be decided in a runoff round scheduled for Thursday.
But several senior army commanders were reported to be alarmed at the prospect of continuing a democratic process that seemed certain to lead to a fundamentalist victory and were reported to have suggested that the president resign and allow the army to step in and stop the democratic process.
There was no army announcement last night, and it was not clear whether the runoff elections had been canceled.
Neither was the situation clear for the country's Constitutional Council, which had a deadline of midnight yesterday to rule on procedural challenges to nearly 150 of the contests won by Islamic Front candidates.
But senior government officials reached by phone last night said that the purpose of the president's resignation was precisely to prevent the fundamentalists from gaining control of the National People's Assembly.
The move, coupled with the movement of army troops into the streets of this capital and other major Algerian cities, is almost certain to trigger demonstrations by supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front, whose leaders have repeatedly warned against any attempt to rob the party of its electoral triumph.
While such a development has been rumored and whispered in private conversations for many days, the president's resignation seemed, nevertheless, to take the nation by surprise, with many citizens expressing anxiety about what is in store for this country 26 million people.
"Truly our country has reached the point where anything was expected. Now, our people must realize we are all responsible for the safety of our nation," a television anchorwoman said last night in an impromptu comment after the president's broadcast. "This is the most dangerous period in our lives. I call for patience, and may God preserve our nation."
The end of Mr. Benjedid's rule appears to signal the end of Algeria's experiment in democracy, which began after bloody riots in October 1988 by hundreds of thousands of youths forced the ruling National Liberation Front to contemplate a shift to a multiparty democratic system.
"The elections have eliminated the ruling party from power with the triumph of the fundamentalists," Ghassan Salameh, a political analyst, professor and specialist in Arab affairs at the Sorbonne, said last night. "Now the resignation of the president eliminates him as an overseer of events, leaving in the field the army to face the fundamentalists."
Senior Algerian officials said they were certain that the first priority would be to contain any violent reaction by the Islamic fundamentalists.
"The immediate question is what the FIS is going to do," said one Cabinet minister who asked not to be identified, referring to the Islamic party by its initials.
In his resignation, the president said that the highest authority in the land now was the Constitutional Council, a seven-man government-appointed body that was until yesterday relatively little known and carries little weight.
But there seems to be little doubt that the real force behind the move was the whole ruling establishment of Algeria, composed of the army, members of the ruling party and a growing number of intellectuals, civic organizations and the country's largest labor syndicate, the General Union for Algerian Workers.
These organizations, both privately and in public meetings, have expressed their absolute opposition to any notion that Islamic fundamentalists could take power here legally, and they appeared well prepared to sacrifice the country's democratic experience in order to prevent such a danger.
In a news conference and again in a speech at Friday prayers, Abdelkader Hachani, the acting leader of the FIS, warned that any tampering with the triumph scored by the group might provoke a violent resistance.
"The most important consequence of what has happened so far is that we have come down to two forces in Algeria, Islam and the forces of darkness," Mr. Hachani told several tens of thousands of worshipers in the Kouba mosque Friday.
"There are conspiracies being woven against us. We must remain vigilant, ready to meet any challenge as one man. We warn any person or any groups who are conspiring against us that the Algerian people have already chosen Islam. It is our duty now to protect that choice."