Algeria’s army chief consolidates gains

Gaid Salah’s power was displayed May 5 when Algeria’s most powerful men were charged in military court with “undermining the army's authority” and “jeopardising state authority.”

TUNIS - Algerian Army Chief-of-Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah has accumulated much influence since he added his commanding voice to the roars of millions of protesters across Algeria to oust President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Gaid Salah’s power was displayed May 5 when Algeria’s most powerful men were charged in military court with “undermining the army's authority” and “jeopardising state authority.” They could be sentenced to death by firing squad if found guilty.

Authorities showed on state television the court appearance of Said Bouteflika, brother and former adviser of Abdelaziz Bouteflika; former intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene; and Bachir Tartag, chief of military intelligence until April 2, to ensure that Algerians believed official announcements regarding the arrest of the three men.

Their detention came after former General Khaled Nezzar, the unofficial spokesman for the military, revealed that, during a late March meeting with Said Bouteflika, the former president’s brother spoke of plans to replace Gaid Salah and declare a state of emergency to end the protests.

Former Algerian President Liamine Zeroual issued a statement saying he dismissed Said Bouteflika’s offer for him to replace Abdelaziz Bouteflika as president to dampen the momentum of the unrest.

Mediene, a fierce rival of Gaid Salah, attended the meeting, Zeroual said.

Gaid Salah’s move to sideline his rivals and strengthen his position as the de facto leader of the county nurtured doubts about his aims. His moves raised questions about whether he was satisfying the demands of the protesters to punish top officials for suspected corruption and power abuses or whether he was taking control of the transition process to transform the regime to his own advantage.

The detention by the military of leftist Workers Party leader Louisa Hanoune May 9 added wariness about the intent of the military and Gaid Salah.

Hanoune repeatedly warned protest leaders and opposition parties that Gaid Salah was using the protesters’ demands to purge his rivals and monopolise power.

"The detention of a woman political leader after she was summoned to the military tribunal as a witness opens the path for all abuses and excesses,” said the Algerian Human Rights League.

“Is this case of ‘plot’ against the army a good alibi to silence all voices opposing the military road map designed by Gaid Salah before it is imposed upon the Algerian people?”

“It is part of an escalation that worries us in more ways than one,” it added.

However, political analysts pointed to the significance of the move by Gaid Salah to take on such powerful figures, widely believed as untouchables.

“Their detention highlighted the intensification of dismantling Bouteflikism,” said political writer Nidal Alawi.

“Hands behind his back apparently cuffed, the brother Said is the most overwhelmed by the purge. Almost two months ago, he was sure to remain forever at the presidency, the real king in the place of the bedridden monarch, beaten down by illness but kept artificially alive for him to lead the country on his behalf.”

Political analyst Makhlouf Mehenni said the arrests, especially that of Mediene, astounded many Algerians. “Their detention highlighted that power without popular legitimacy is only an illusion,” he said.

“The Algerians did not believe it initially. [Mediene], who earned the nickname ‘Rab Dzair’ (‘God of Algeria’) because of his power including bringing down presidents, discovered suddenly the meaning of unfair justice and its damages,” he added.

Hanoune's arrest and the detention of the three men fuelled debate among protest figures on whether it was time to select a leadership that would defend protesters’ demands for regime change. Others said it was better for the protest movement to remain leaderless to avoid being beheaded by the military.

"The goal of the protest movement remains the uprooting of the regime, which is still the relevant strategy to resolve the country’s crisis and the most efficient tactic as the movement rallies the biggest number of Algerians,” said secularist opposition figure Said Saadi.

“The massive and leaderless aspects of the movement allowed until now the protests to foil provocation attempts aimed at derailing its peacefulness and preventing its splintering.”

Analysts predicted the military would take a leading role in the political process July 9 when the term of Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah ends without carrying out his main task of organising presidential elections, announced for July 4, because protesters and opposition parties see his plan as a surreptitious way of breathing life into the dying regime.

“The political life is dominated by two main players: the protesters and the army, who are de facto allies even when each side has its own road map for the future,” said writer Abed Charef.

“The protesters have big dreams of changing the whole regime as they increasingly discover the fragility of the regime. For the army’s command, which was in its position under Bouteflika, the priority is different. The army’s leaders have to consolidate the newly gained power and eliminate the risks and threats to reverse the situation.”

However, when Bensalah steps down, the military leadership might find itself on a collision course with protest figures who clamour for a wholesale change of the regime.

“On July 9, the People’s National Armed Forces will be in its role as guardian of the country’s stability to supervise in a way or the other the transition towards a presidential election within shortened deadlines,” said political writer Said Boucetta.

Observers were watching to see whether the numbers of protesters would decline because of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Protest leaders suggested that people rally at public squares after breaking the fast with street marches shortened to two hours during the day.

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.