Army could be arbiter in Algeria crisis as protests gain support

Algeria experts see the military’s backing as crucial for any potential successor to Bouteflika.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Festive and loud. People protest against Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Algiers, March 8, 2019. The sign reads: "Algeria is not dead". (Reutres)
Festive and loud. People protest against Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Algiers, March 8, 2019. The sign reads: "Algeria is not dead". (Reutres)

TUNIS - Amid signs of disaffection by regime loyalists and a shift in the army’s position, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets March 8 across Algeria to express opposition to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office.

The peaceful protests were the third weekly mass demonstrations since February 22. Algerian sociologist Fatma Oussedik estimated the number of Algerians who have taken part in the demonstrations at 3 million.

In Algiers, protesters converged after Friday prayers in a dense wave stretching nearly 1km while bystanders threw flowers and confetti from flag-draped balconies.

Since Bouteflika, who is in Switzerland for medical tests, had his candidacy for re-election officially submitted March 3, no fewer than 15 opposition parties and four unions expressed support for the protest movement. More significant, however, were the increasing signs showing that support for the protests was spreading to regime loyalist circles. ahead of the April 18 election.

Several members of parliament from the ruling National Liberation Front have resigned and the highly respected National Organisation of Mujahideen, an umbrella organisation for war of independence veterans, came out in support of the protests. “It is the duty of Algerian society in all its segments to take to the streets,” it said.

There was a notable change in the official media’s reporting on the protests with the official Algeria Press Service admitting that demonstrators were clamouring for “regime change” and not just demanding “political change,” as it previously stated.

However, the strongest sign of the changing mood within the regime’s key power bases came from the powerful military.

“The achievements gained by our armed forces in several fields and their unlimited and unqualified standing with their nation confirm the solid unity between the people and their armed forces,” said an editorial of El Djeich (“the Army”), a publication of the military.

In a major departure from its traditional positions, the magazine’s editorial did not mention Bouteflika or his re-election bid nor did it echo concern expressed by the president’s warning, in a March 7 letter, of the need for “vigilance and caution in case this peaceful expression is infiltrated by some insidious party… which could cause chaos.”

“The people and the armed forces belong to the same homeland with no alternative to that,” pointed out El Djeich’s editorial. “Our people who are instilled with great patriotic consciousness are fully aware of the current threats and challenges.”

The magazine seemed to reflect a gradual shift in the military’s position away from unconditional loyalty to Bouteflika.

The editorial praised Algerians more than the country’s leadership: “Our people, who fought and overcame a colonisation of 130 years in a decisive independence war and foiled the terrorist project that aimed to destroy the pillars of the state, merit to bear the message of their forefathers and shoulder the responsibility to carry and preserve their trust to achieve the national project.”

Algerian military Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah assured the public on March 5 that the army was committed to the Algerian people and its main objective is that “security is assured and stability is deeply entrenched.”

Gaid Salah, whom many refer to as “the arbiter of last resort,” had previously warned Algerians against taking part in protests and defended Bouteflika’s record.

Algeria experts see the military’s backing as crucial for any potential successor to Bouteflika.

Michael Ayari, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Agence France-Presse: “The army could try to steer a possible transition process.” He mentioned retired General Ali Ghediri, who is a candidate for president, as a possible consensus choice.

Observers said the army would likely avoid giving the impression of pulling the strings of the succession crisis. “It (the army) will not interfere for now because it is up to the civilian ruling elite to clean the mess. This is not the military’s business but it will not accept a remake of the 1990s scenario,” a retired general, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

Figures close to Bouteflika suggested that the Algerian Constitutional Council could help defuse the crisis by nullifying Bouteflika’s candidacy on health or procedural grounds.

“The council has to tell the full truth to the public about the medical certificate about the health of President Bouteflika,” said Farouk Ksantini, a lawyer with ties to the president.

The Algerian Bar Association called on the council to reject Bouteflika’s candidacy, citing his physical incapacity and his failure to submit his candidacy documentation personally (and not through a proxy as he did).

The council has until March 18 to decide on Bouteflika’s candidacy.