The Algerian general who could be president
TUNIS - When General Ahmed Gaid Salah took over as Algeria’s military chief-of-staff 11 years ago, most commentators had him leaving his office within months as President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was reportedly considering another top officer for the post.
Analysts argued that Salah was disadvantaged by his age — he’s now 75 — and ideological stand as a staunch nationalist, though a moderate Muslim conservative. His stand put him outside the circle of army generals known as “eradicators” for their radical opposition to Islamists.
However, Salah ascended to conspicuous heights after his nemesis, military intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene, was sacked by Bouteflika in September after 25 years at the post.
Mediene had been so powerful that he was nicknamed Rab Dzaier — The God of Algeria. Under Mediene’s watch, the Intelligence and Security Department (DRS), the country’s spy agency, overshadowed all Algeria’s leaders as Mediene extended his power to put the country’s affairs under his control while Algeria fought an Islamist insurgency that claimed more than 150,000 lives.
Mediene’s men in the DRS have been purged and most of the agency’s powerful departments have come under the control of the military’s chief-of-staff, making Salah the unchallenged highest officer while doubling as a junior defence minister.
As a result, Salah has taken a pivotal role that could decide Algeria’s political future while ailing Bouteflika strives to forge a consensus among the country’s elites around his preferred replacement.
“It is the surprising destiny of a man. He (Salah) has overcome manoeuvres and crises to attain the position of a key player in a moving political landscape,” said Hassen Ouali, leading military affairs analyst at El Watan daily.
Algeria has enjoyed its longest period of stability since independence under Bouteflika’s presidency of nearly 20 years but its relative nationwide calm has come at great economic cost. Bouteflika’s cautious political management has relied on high hydrocarbon export earnings to subsidise the government plans.
As upheaval thundered around Algeria in Arab countries, the North African nation managed to cope with the dissatisfaction of its population of 39 million. It did so thanks to big state spending, which bolstered Bouteflika’s reputation as a figure of national compromise and reconciliation backed by an overwhelming police presence.
Algeria shelved painful economic and social reforms because of crises in neighbouring countries as Bouteflika, who much like the country’s nationalist revolutionary leaders, put stability before other policy priorities.
The years since the 2011 “Arab spring” have not been helpful for Algeria. Chaos in Libya and serious security concerns in northern Mali and Tunisia were seen as sources of threats by Algeria. The January 2013 raid at Ain Amenas natural gas complex underscored Algeria’s vulnerability. The government and foreign operators are still striving to lift the facility to pre-attack output levels.
Bouteflika suffered a stroke April 2013, leading to a national debate over who would replace him and what kind of systemic reform was needed to move Algeria from an economic system shored up by oil export revenue to a market economy.
Politicians from various stances insist the military leadership’s role is crucial in helping the country develop into a more open political system and productive market economy. “The solution will come from the armed forces,” said reform-minded former prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche, who was once a senior army officer. His view is said to be shared by most political leaders.
Salah’s status as unchallenged military chief has prompted analysts to argue that the military leadership could be tempted to announce they are the solution. Salah could present himself as their candidate to replace Bouteflika, if and when the latter steps down.
Analysts pointed to Salah’s pervasive presence in the media as he criss-crossed the country, meeting soldiers and officers, repeating his mantra that the country’s defence is intertwined with its comprehensive political social and economic strength.
“His dream to be president is as old as his long stay in the military. He is reportedly favouring an Egyptian-style solution in Algeria. He sees himself as the Algerian Sisi,” Ouali said, referring to former army leader Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
It is widely known in political circles in Algiers that Salah had wondered out loud “Why not me” in 1994 when he was asked by his peers to endorse General Liamine Zeroual as president.
“It is still to be known whether Salah’s ambition is shared by his peers in the military top chiefs or whether he will force the hands of top commanders to back such an ambition,” said Ouali.
Hocine Benhadid, former commander of the country’s famous tank Eighth Brigade, dismissed Salah as a serious contender, saying he lacked genuine support among commanders and troops.
“No one likes him or respects him. They all follow his orders out of respect for military discipline,” said Benhadid in early October. He was arrested for his comments.