Bouteflika oversees largest military purge since country’s independence

Bouteflika has proven to be the boldest Algerian president, publicly facing off with generals during his tenure.
Sunday 02/09/2018
Uncertainties. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika makes a rare public appearance in Algiers, last April 9.              									              (Reuters)
Uncertainties. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika makes a rare public appearance in Algiers, last April 9. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has purged the country’s military command, firing or transferring a dozen top generals in what is the largest military restructuring since Algeria won independence from France in 1962.

Bouteflika made the high-level military changes, which included replacing commanders of the ground forces, head of military intelligence and the security chief, from June 26 to August 26, the day his office announced he travelled to Geneva for regular medical tests.

Bouteflika, 81, has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 but his backers have voiced support for him to seek a fifth 5-year term in next April’s election. He has not announced whether he will seek a new mandate.

The military purge, which saw a change of military chiefs of all regions except that bordering Tunisia, comes as speculation grows over a possible leadership transition after next year’s elections. It also comes as Algeria puts a greater focus on defence spending and counterterrorism.

Algeria plans to spend $30 billion from 2019-23 on defence systems and weaponry from the United States and Europe. The country has ramped up military drills in the Sahara, as well as naval and air force exercises.

While Bouteflika’s military shake-up marked a major transformation, it also kept the country’s older generation in control, with new appointees and top officers having an average age of 70.

Top military commander General Ahmed Gaid Salah said: “The criteria of competences and merits are our guide to promote officers and alternate responsibilities and roles in the armed forces to open opportunities to motivate and develop human resources to the benefits of the military.”

Analysts said such an extensive overhaul in a short period was unusual for a large army like Algeria’s and was more likely due to political rather than military considerations.

“The cascade of firing and moved top officers is unheard of and unprecedented in its scope and targets,” wrote Omar Berbiche, editor of El Watan newspaper.

Security analyst Said Rabia said: “If the motives behind the change were strictly linked to the military needs and objectives as an institution, why did such change come now and why on such a large scale?

“No similar leadership restructuring of an army in the world has been done on such a scale.”

Berbiche described the move as a “political operation of mine-clearing” ahead of presidential elections.

“The new chiefs are all old men, which does not fit the argument of giving new blood to the military leadership,” said analyst Hassen Ouali. “This significant change came a few months ahead of the crucial presidential vote that is shrouded by uncertainty that has generated doubts and worries about the future.”

The Algerian military has played a key role in politics throughout the country’s history, which has been marred by repeated conflicts and coups.

In 1965, the military overthrew the country’s first post-independence president, Ahmed Ben Bella, who was replaced by Colonel Houari Boumediene. Top military officers later designated presidents, before rubber-stamp presidential votes confirmed their choices, including Bouteflika in 1999.

Bouteflika, however, has proven to be the boldest Algerian president, publicly facing off with generals during his tenure. Shortly after assuming the presidency, Bouteflika stated he did not fear “a bullet in his head” and would act independently. He advocated curbing the influence of the “15 generals” who controlled foreign trade and large segments of the domestic market.

In 2015, Bouteflika fired feared intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene and dismantled the Intelligence and Security Department that Mediene controlled. Analysts said that move pushed Algeria from a “security state” towards a “liberal autocracy.”

Algerian analyst Makhlouf Mehenni said Bouteflika’s recent military overhaul is his most radical.

“Already more than a dozen top generals with key positions in the military hierarchy (have been) fired, forced to retire or moved from their positions. Never has the Algerian military experienced such change since independence,” Mehenni said.