Algeria detains general amid musical chairs, fake news

General Bouazza was replaced by General Abdelghani Rachedi as chief of the military counter-intelligence agency.
Sunday 26/04/2020
“Natural” changes. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune speaks during a press conference, Dec.13, 2019 in Algiers. (AP)
“Natural” changes. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune speaks during a press conference, Dec.13, 2019 in Algiers. (AP)

TUNIS--Algeria’s military counter-intelligence chief, General Wassini Bouazza, was detained shortly after being replaced, as President Abdelmadjid Tebboune sought to restructure the army leadership.

Military chief Said Chengriha urged officers to respect the new counter-intelligence head, but a stream of fake news illustrated the challenge of replacing loyalists of the late military chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah from the army’s chain of command.

General Bouazza was replaced by General Abdelghani Rachedi as chief of the military counter-intelligence agency, the Internal Security General Directorate, on April 13.

A few hours later, Bouazza was arrested and jailed at the army intelligence’s headquarters, sparking a stream of speculation and reports of alleged arrests and removals of other generals.

Analysts said it took four months for the power transition within the counter-intelligence agency to be finalised. First, Rachedi was appointed as Bouazza’s deputy with “special powers,” before Bouazza was actually replaced.

“The replacement and arrest of general Bouazza put an end to four months of clan warfare that displayed uneasiness at the summit of the state,” said security analyst Salima Tlemcani, who is widely seen as enjoying access to the military establishment.

Tlemcani said it was notable that military chief Chengriha called on officers to respect Rachedi in his swearing-in ceremony. “He urged the officers to accept working under his orders, respect him and act with the respect of the law and the interests of the country,” Tlemcani said.

Bouazza had been called the “right hand man” of late general Gaid Salah, who began appointing close aides to key positions in the military in April last year when longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted amid unprecedented pro-democracy protests.

Gaid Salah became the de facto leader of Algeria after Bouteflika was ousted.

Chengriha replaced Gaid Salah after the former military chief’s sudden death two weeks after the election of Tebboune in December.

Chengriha’s powers, however, are somewhat tempered compared to Gaid Salah’s. Gaid Salah served as chief-of-staff of the armed forces and deputy defence minister, while Chengriha is only interim chief-of-staff. President Tebboune, who also serves as defence minister, scrapped the position of deputy defence minister from the government line-up.

The Algerian military has played a key role in politics throughout the country’s history that has been marred by repeated conflicts and coups.

In 1965, the military overthrew the country’s first post-independence president, Ahmed Ben Bella, who was replaced by Colonel Houari Boumediene. Top military officers later designated presidents, before rubber-stamped presidential votes confirmed their choices, including Bouteflika in 1999.

The first president who publicly challenged the military power was former independence fighter Mohamed Boudiaf, but he was shot dead by an army soldier six months into his term in 1992.

Bouteflika, however, proved most determined to chart a different path, publicly facing off with generals during his tenure.

Shortly after assuming the presidency, Bouteflika stated he did not fear “a bullet in his head” and would act independently. He advocated curbing the influence of the “15 generals” who controlled foreign trade and large segments of the domestic market.

In 2015, Bouteflika fired feared intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene and dismantled the Intelligence and Security Department that Mediene controlled. Analysts said that move pushed Algeria from a “security state” towards a “liberal autocracy.”

Under Tebboune’s presidency, the removal of General Bouazza was preceded by other changes in the sensitive military positions, including the head of the Army Central Security Directorate, which Gaid Salah transformed into a powerful intelligence apparatus much like Mediene’s department.

Major-General Mohamed Kaidi, who was appointed by Gaid Salah in April last year as head of the Army Central Security Directorate, was replaced last month by General Sid Ali Benzemirli.

The directorate, known in French as “la Direction centrale de la sécurité de l’armée (DCSA),” was headed by Mediene for three years until 1990 when he became the country’s top intelligence chief — nicknamed Rab Dzayar (God of Algeria) — for his far-reaching power.

Tebboune picked General Amar Athamnia in March to lead the country’s land forces, a position previously held by General Chengriha.

Athamnia could be the next military chief if Chengriha, 74, were to be tapped as deputy defence minister, analysts said.

Asked about the change in the military, Tebboune’s spokesman Belaid Mohand Oussaid said: “These changes are natural and are part and parcel of the action of the president who works to establish a state of freedoms and institutions.”

The Defence Ministry, reacting to apparently false reports of more firings in the military, said there were “propaganda” efforts to “sow confusion and doubt among the National Popular Army.”

“The ministry categorically refutes these misinformed messages coming from interests that dislike the changes made by the president and the commander in chief of the armed forces,” said the Defence Ministry.

“This misinformed propaganda is an attempt to sow confusion and doubt among the National Popular Army which remains the strongest shield to protect the country from all plots and intrigues,” it added.