Algeria’s army stance crucial as mass protests continue
TUNIS - Algeria's top military chief has assured the public that the army is committed to the Algerian people and the national interest, a telling reversal that indicates the state is increasingly on the defensive against mass protests over President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s re-election bid.
"Security is assured and stability is deeply entrenched,” General Ahmed Gaid Salah told military graduates at the main military academy in Cherchell on March 5. “...The Algerian people will continue to enjoy the grace of security and stability.”
The remarks signalled a shift in how the military leader has chosen to handle the growing protest movement, which has left Bouteflika’s loyalists concerned the country could plunge into civil strife.
Previously, Gaid Salah, who many refer to as “the arbiter of last resort,” warned Algerians against taking part in protests and defended the embattled president’s record. In his recent remarks, he did not mention Bouteflika’s re-election campaign. Algeria experts now see him adopting a "middle-ground stance" in the face of the mounting pressures against Bouteflika's re-election. The army could be playing the most crucial role in the crisis.
Meanwhile in Paris, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France was closely watching the anti-government protests in its former colony, but that it was up to Algerians to decide the future.
"We have to let the electoral process develop and France, given our historical links ... is very attentive," Le Drian told lawmakers on March 6.
With more than 4 million people of Algerian origin in France, officials in Paris fear any upheaval could lead to an influx of refugees and a potential security crisis.
"This is why the stability, security and development of Algeria are absolutely essential," Le Drian said, calling on the demonstrations in Algeria to remain peaceful.
The United States also said it was following the protests in Algeria and affirmed Algerians’ right to free expression.
The "US supports the Algerian people and their right to peacefully assemble," deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told journalists.
"We're monitoring these protests that are happening in Algeria and we're going to continue to do that," Palladino said.
Protests broke out after Bouteflika, 82, announced last month he would run for a fifth term in office.
After weeks of mass demonstrations, it was announced that Bouteflika would limit his prospective fifth term to one year in office, while holding a national conference to discuss reforms and a new constitution. Each message was delivered through an aid, as Bouteflika has not spoken publicly since 2013 when he suffered a debilitating stroke. The president is now in Switzerland receiving medical treatment.
In his recent remarks, Gaid Salah did not respond to the opposition’s pleas for the army to “protect the people to gain their rights for regime change or offer any further compromise.” However, he cautioned against “some parties who are attempting to plunge Algeria back into the years of pain and fire,” a reference to the country’s devastating civil war in the 1990s.
Many Algerian analysts have been taken aback by the rapid political developments, which have seen Algeria’s main pro-government parties, including the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), lose credibility with much of the public and sparked the largest protests in years.
"No one saw it coming," said Algerian sociologist Nacer Djabi. "The candidacy of the head of the state to the presidential elections is trapping the street and the regime.”
"The president has no project except to remain in office for life. What he failed to achieve in 20 years, he cannot realise in one year," he added in reference to Bouteflika's proposed one-year term. "His offer of an inclusive national conference is a political ambush. It is not a solution.”
Others expressed fear that protests could grow violent if longstanding grievances are not addressed.
"The massive demonstrations of the recent weeks could easily swing towards violence,” said political writer Hacen Ouali. “The candidacy of Bouteflika risks putting the country in flames. It adds fuel to the fire. The worst is feared.”
In another blow to Bouteflika, the influential National Organisation of Mujahideen, a body that represents survivors and family members of Algeria’s independence war, denounced his political entourage for abusing the state and driving instability.
“The Organisation denounces collusion between influential circles in power and venal corrupt businessmen who have benefited from illicit money from the state," said the body.
"They are responsible for the situation that threatens the national project," it added.
After large protests on March 5, Algeria was largely quiet the following day apart from one demonstration in the restive town of Bejaia.
Algerians are preparing to hold mass demonstrations for the third Friday in a row on March 8 as momentum builds to push Bouteflika to step down.