Algerian Army leader warns of 'harsh punishment' for opponents of presidential election

Gaid Salah has won support for the elections, scheduled for December 12, from members of Bouteflika’s former regime.
Saturday 28/09/2019
Algerian Army Chief of Staff, General Ahmed Gaid Salah. (AFP)
Algerian Army Chief of Staff, General Ahmed Gaid Salah. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algerian Army General Ahmed Gaid Salah threatened opponents of his planned presidential elections in December, saying they would receive “harsh and deterrent punishment” for jeopardising the “crucial process.”

The warning put Algeria’s top military command on a collision course with peaceful protesters that have taken to the streets since February 22 pushing for broad governmental reforms. The movement has drawn citizens from across generations and from all political, ideological and geographical backgrounds.

Former Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche advocated for an overhaul of Algeria’s political system and said any president elected in this year’s vote would be a "hostage" of the former regime’s entrenched networks, with little ability to make meaningful changes.

"The change of the system is not the problem. It is the solution," he said. "Indeed, the country desperately needs not a change of men. It needs a true institutional model to rebuild the state and the political system.  The survival of Algeria, its army and government depends on that.”

Hamrouche said the "current anti-national system," if it were to remain unchanged, would “ultimately smash the cohesiveness of the Algerian People’s National Army.”

Rather than quick elections, activists are pushing for a transitional period during which preparations could be made for an electoral process seen more free and open to opposition.

Gaid Salah and his backers, however, warned that a lengthy transition could send the country into “chaos” and said there is no way to gauge the population’s wishes except through elections.

Gaid Salah has contained the unprecedented unrest. While voicing “brotherly support” for protesters, he railed against activists who insist he is attempting a power grab and pushed for his removal from office.

Since long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted, Gaid Salah has overseen a purge of former officials. Dozens of top-ranking officials, including two former prime ministers, Bouteflika’s brother Said, a powerful former military intelligence chief and a former defence minister have been arrested on corruption charges. Many of them were considered political threats to Gaid Salah.

The government also cracked down on activists in the protest movement, arresting 70 of its leaders.

Gaid Salah has won support for the elections, scheduled for December 12, from members of Bouteflika’s former regime. There is little doubt they will go ahead and dozens of people have expressed their intention to run. Among them are former Prime Ministers Ali Benflis and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, both of whom are thought to have the support of the military command.

Benflis's allies, former parliament Speaker Karim Younes and former Justice Minister Mohamed Charfi, will play a prominent role in the country’s transition. Younes was appointed head of the Dialogue and Mediation Authority and Charfi was picked to head the Independent National Elections Authority tasked with organising the presidential polls.

Younes and Charfi had been at odds with Bouteflika since they supported Benflis’s bid to challenge him for the presidency in 2004.

Tebboune appointed top diplomat Abdellah Baali, who has ties with top army leaders, as his campaign chief. Baali, who previously served as Algerian ambassador to the United States, was recently named ambassador to France before quickly being pulled from the position.

Tebboune, who served as prime minister in 2017 and is seen as close to Bouteflika, said he and his family have been “victims of the past regime.” He was referring to his removal as prime minister after only three months after he called for the government to “separate money from politics.”

Algeria has delayed presidential elections twice this year because of a lack of viable candidates But Gaid Salah has insisted they must take place “as soon as possible” and warned that “those who stand in the way of this constitutional solution” will receive “harsh punishment.”

"There is no place and tolerance for such shenanigans when the national interest of the country is at stake," Gaid Salah said in a speech September 26 from the military barracks.

He vowed the elections would be free and fair and said they would provide an opportunity “to establish the confidence in the country and open a new promising horizon to strengthen democratic practices.”

"This horizon has been overshadowed for years by the gang who attempted to monopolise power to plunder the country's wealth," he added, referring to Bouteflika’s entourage.

Gaid Salah previously defended Bouteflika’s bid to extend his 20-year stay in power when protests broke out.