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Algeria's powerful army chief dies at pivotal point in political crisis

December 23, 2019 at 6:32 pm

Algeria’s powerful army chief, who masterminded the state’s response to mass protests this year, died suddenly of a heart attack on Monday, and a likely successor quickly emerged from the same old guard the demonstrators want to be swept away.

Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah had become the most visible figure in Le Pouvoir – the “power”, as Algerians describe their secretive ruling elite, helping to bring down long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April.

As military chief of staff, his strategy was to replace Bouteflika and his allies while keeping the essential structure of power unchanged and allowing the protests to continue, hoping to wait out the demonstrators.

Who's really in charge in Algeria - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Who’s really in charge in Algeria – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Huge crowds continued to flood the streets through much of 2019 to demand wholesale change to the leadership, unappeased by Bouteflika’s resignation and the arrest of many of his aides and allies on corruption charges.

The protest movement in the major oil-gas-exporting country has no formal leaders or organisation. But among its main demands throughout the weekly rallies has been that the army step away from its central political role since Algeria’s 1962 independence from France, with marchers often chanting: “A civilian state, not a military state”.

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As the year wore on, protesters also increasingly called for Gaid Salah himself to resign, especially after he pushed hard for an election to replace Bouteflika that they regarded as illegitimate while the old guard still held sway.

The new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, quickly named the head of the land forces, General Said Chengriha, as the new acting chief of staff to replace Gaid Salah.

Chengriha, 74, is from the same generation of powerful generals as Gaid Salah, who was 79, both men have started their careers in the guerrilla forces that rose up against French colonial rule.

“The army hierarchy is unified and it will move on after Gaid Salah as it did before him. Algeria’s army is a single bloc, not under the influence of one general but with consensus as to its engine,” said a retired general who asked not to be named.

Gaid Salah’s death came at a critical moment in the state’s response to the unrest. The army had pushed for the election of a new president as a big step in its strategy to restore a normal order in which it held a central role.

Algeria: Army leadership has no political ambitions - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Algeria: Army leadership has no political ambitions – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The funeral is expected to take place on Tuesday, a day on which students in the large North African country have been staging weekly protests for much of the year.

The protest movement is itself still debating its own response to President Tebboune’s offer of dialogue. It rejected his election through a vote in which official figures showed only 40% of voters took part.

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