Algeria’s army chief takes softer line on protests amid growing power struggle

There is concern that Gaid Salah plans to use the protest movement and opposition to planned elections to shore up his own power.
Sunday 28/04/2019
A demonstrator shouts into a megaphone as others hold flags and banners during anti-government protests in Algiers, April 23. (Reuters)
Keeping up the momentum. A demonstrator shouts into a megaphone as others hold flags and banners during anti-government protests in Algiers, April 23. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Algeria’s powerful army chief is struggling to allay mass protests seeking quick governmental change while proceeding with a military-backed plan to gradually transition power.

Algerian Army Chief-of-Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has increasingly taken the role of de facto leader following the ouster of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 2, defended the country’s electoral process, which would set elections by July 4.

Algeria’s opposition and protesters say that time frame would not provide enough time to mount a serious challenge to a political establishment that has ruled for decades. They sought to force out remaining figures of the Bouteflika regime and proposed a civilian leadership council take over until credible elections can be organised.

While Gaid Salah promised that “all options are open” to ensure a successful transition, he cautioned that swift regime change would leave the country vulnerable to instability and “plots” from hostile countries.

However, he issued a statement April 23 saying he “is ready to endorse any constructive proposal and useful initiative that lead towards ending the crisis and a lasting peace,” without mentioning presidential elections.

“The National Popular Army is siding with the people to attain their aims of the expected change and is continuing its mobilisation to accompany the Algerians in their peaceful marches and ensure their protection,” Gaid Salah said.

His more diplomatic approach was in contrast to previous remarks towards leading protesters, whom he said risked plunging the country “into a spiral of violence in anarchy.”

Defending the constitutionally mandated election time frame, Gaid Salah had said: “To all these (voices), we say that the Algerian people are sovereign in their decisions and it is up to the people to decide on the issue (of regime change) during the election of a new president who will have the legitimacy to satisfy the remaining popular and legitimate demands.”

Protest leaders and nearly all major political parties, including those close to the regime, say it is impossible to organise credible elections by July 4. Mayors and judges tasked with overseeing and approving the polls agree and have pledged to boycott them as part of efforts to press for regime change.

However, there is also concern that Gaid Salah, who is suspected of vying for control against a rival military figure, former intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene, plans to use the protest movement and opposition to planned elections to shore up his own power.

Gaid Salah could use protests as cover to postpone elections beyond July 4 and extend his power, while in the meantime using the judiciary to purge Mediene’s supporters from government and business positions.

The Defence Ministry issued a statement saying Gaid Salah’s remarks had been twisted and subject to a “misinformation campaign.”

Gaid Salah said Algeria could be the target of “abject plots to undermine its stability and jeopardise its security” and that information had been gathered “about a plan… to plunge the country into a dead-end situation.”

“The beginnings of the plan were traced back to 2015 when the outlines and aims of the plot were revealed,” he added.

Mediene, Algeria’s military spy chief for 20 years, was fired by Bouteflika in September 2015.

Mediene had put Gaid Salah on a list of generals to be retired but Bouteflika kept Gaid Salah on board as a counterweight to the military intelligence head. However, in a sign of Mediene’s influence, Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s brother and adviser Said Bouteflika turned to Mediene for help on March 30 when the president was under increasing pressure to step down.

Gaid Salah denounced the Mediene-Said Bouteflika meeting as part of a “plot to launch a smear campaign against the army.” He warned Mediene on April 16 “for the last time” to stop stirring protests but the former intelligence director remains free.

“We are operating serenely and patiently to dismantle the time bombs planted by these corrupts and corrupters in the various sectors and crucial state bodies,” said Gaid Salah.

“These sectors will be cleaned up thanks to the combination of efforts by all persons of good faith, the consciousness of the Algerian people who treasure their homeland and the availability of their sons and brothers in the army.”

Gaid Salah spurred the authorities to clamp down on corruption.

Algeria’s richest man, Issad Rebrab, and four brothers from the influential Kouninef family were arrested in an anti-graft investigation involving 641 cases that had been delayed since 2009.