The Algerian army, heir to the national liberation army that fought colonial France, has been at the heart of the country’s political system ever since independence in 1962. Today that arrangement may have reached its limit. The popular revolt that began Feb. 22 is forcing the armed forces to confront their contradictory role as both a key participant and arbiter of government.
The military’s original foray into Algerian politics began with its support for Ahmed Ben Bella as premier in 1962 (Ben Bella was elected Algeria’s first president a year later). In 1965, Col. Houari Boumedienne, the army chief, captured the presidency for himself following a military coup. Since then, directly or indirectly, the army has been making and unmaking nominally civilian governments while guiding the country’s political life.
Engaged in a brutal fight against Islamists in the 1990s, the army sponsored Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rise to power in 1999. Overexposed during the years of civil war, the military was happy to give Bouteflika free rein and reclaim its behind-the-scenes role as kingmaker.
The scheming Bouteflika in turn adeptly played rival army chiefs off of one another. In 2004, during Bouteflika's first reelection campaign, Gen. Mohamed Lamari, the army chief of staff who opposed Bouteflika and discreetly backed presidential rival Ali Benflis, resigned. Fellow generals — notably the head of the intelligence and security service Mohamed Mediene, commonly known as Gen. Toufik — continued to support Bouteflika, including during constitutional changes that opened the way for presidency for life in 2008.
Things began to get more complicated starting in 2010 as Mediene’s agency investigated corruption, leading to a shakeup of the Sonatrach national oil corporation and allegations against Bouteflika's personal friend, the powerful Energy Minister Chakib Khelil. The January 2013 terrorist attack against the Tigantourine natural gas field near In Amenas gave Bouteflika ammunition to weaken Mediene and strengthen Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army chief of staff and vice minister of defense. Mediene was evicted and his intelligence service restructured in 2015.
When street protests first broke out against Bouteflika on Feb. 22, Gaid Salah was fully behind the ailing 82-year-old’s bid for a fifth term. The general's first reaction was to denounce the “questionable calls” pushing “lost” Algerians toward “perilous” paths. As the protests took on a national dimension, Gaid Salah as recently as March 5 was accusing “certain parties” of seeking to bring back the “years of embers and pain.” The next day, he insisted that he remained “resolutely determined” to hold presidential elections as scheduled for the following month.
It was only on March 10, two days after massive nationwide protests, that the army chief began to drop his threatening tone. On March 18, Gaid Salah began to talk about possible “solutions” to the political upheaval, opening the door to a potential compromise.
With Bouteflika’s regime crumbling, the army found itself back in the spotlight. Under pressure from the street, Gaid Salah pushed the president to step down and obtained the resignation sought by so many Algerians on April 2. Since then, the general has been the public figure who speaks for the government and seeks to set its course.
However, Gaid Salah remains wedded to a political transition as contemplated under the constitution, which calls for elections within 90 days (they have been scheduled for July 4). The popular protest movement, however, rejects this approach, insisting that the old guard cannot be trusted to honestly organize the passage to a new regime in which the people rule.
This arm’s length discussion of sorts between the army chief and the popular movement has been growing ever more tense. Gaid Salah addresses the nation on Tuesdays; the public answers on Fridays with massive street protests. As the strongman of the moment, Gaid Salah embodies the regime. But the Algerian people expect him — and the army he leads — to support a real transition to democracy.
Even as he sends mixed messages outward, Gaid Salah is waging a parallel battle inside the regime against a purported network of pro-Mediene plotters suspected of seeking to undermine Gaid Salah's plans. He has publicly accused them of “plotting” and of frustrating efforts to end the crisis.
As such, intelligence services that used to answer to the president are now under the general staff’s thumb. Gaid Salah has put trusted men in charge, so-called “administrative generals” with no experience serving this black box of the Algerian system.
Gen. Rezzig Boura, the former chief of the General Directorate for Internal Security, is but the latest to step down, replaced by Gen. Wassini Bouazza. His resignation was preceded by that of the external security chief, Ali Bendaoud, and the departure of powerful Maj. Gen. Athmane Tartag, whom Bouteflika had put in charge of coordinating the security services.
But is Mediene really as powerful as Gaid Salah suggests? Many Algerians remain skeptical, even if his reappearance on the political scene for last-minute negotiations on the eve of Bouteflika’s departure has renewed questions about the power of the intelligence services’ supposed influence networks.
Gaid Salah also appears to be torn about imposing new elections in the face of massive public opposition. While his official discourse is not in favor of popular demands. the army seems undecided between trying to save a dying regime and opening up to the public’s democratic aspirations.
The protest movement is asking the fundamental question: Will the army, which has de facto assumed the power to install and remove from office the country’s leaders ever since independence, now hand that power over to the people?
When Gaid Salah invokes Article 102 of the Algerian Constitution, which charts the path for a political transition, the street answers with references to Article 7, which invokes the sovereignty of the people. This is the chasm the army must now try to bridge in its face to face with Algerians. It will require a true cultural revolution on the part of army leaders to accompany the democratic revolution of the Algerian people.