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Exclusive – Will Algeria’s Chief of Staff Remain a Bouteflika Loyalist or Side with Protesters?

Exclusive – Will Algeria’s Chief of Staff Remain a Bouteflika Loyalist or Side with Protesters?

Saturday, 9 March, 2019 - 08:15
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (L) and Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaed Salah. (Reuters file photo)
Algiers - Boualem Goumrassa
Algerians are unanimous in saying that Chief of Staff and deputy Defense Minister Ahmed Gaed Salah is a pillar in their country’s regime, both on the civil and military levels. He is known for his fierce loyalty to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika since he appointed him to his position in 2004 to succeed the sacked Mohamed Lamari.

Lamari had differed with Bouteflika over the extension of his term in office. The president was re-elected in 2004 and dismissed his chief of staff soon after. Five years later, however, Lamari would be among Bouteflika’s main supporters in his run for a third term in office.

Today, Algeria is witnessing popular protests against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term. Attention is drawn towards the military, specifically the 79-year-old Gaed Salah and whether he will waver in his support for the president.

On February 26, the chief of staff voiced his complete support for the president in his run for re-election in the April 18 polls. During an address in southern Algeria, he criticized the thousands of protesters who had recently taken to the streets to object to Bouteflika’s run. In a speech broadcast on state television, he declared that the military, as stipulated by the constitution, considers all who call for violence an opponent of the desire of the Algerian people to live in security and safety.

“Is it possible to drive some Algerians towards the unknown through suspicious calls that on the surface appear to be democratic,” but on the inside appear to harbor ill intentions that do not serve Algeria’s interests? he asked.

His speech shocked many who had hoped that the military and its commander would side with the people.

Odd development

Soon after this fiery speech, something strange took place in Algeria. Gaed Salah’s remarks were withdrawn from all media, including websites and state television. Media institutions received instructions from the media official in the Defense Ministry to refrain from releasing Gaed Salah’s threatening statements. The senior official did not disclose the reason for the instructions, but it was understood that it was ordered by a major government power that was displeased with the military commander’s remarks against the protesters.

Two weeks after the incident, no one has found an explanation for it.

Backbone and support

Gaed Salah is seen as the “backbone” that supports and protects Bouteflika and his entourage, which boasts of the president’s accomplishments on a daily basis. Observers believe that Gaed Salah, whom the media never dares in criticizing, provided the president with the support he needed in running for re-election so many times in the past. This support led many to believe that Bouteflika will win a fifth term in office. That is, until the protests erupted.

In recent days, however, the military commander shifted his tone and appeared more lenient towards the protests. He said in speech that the army “is aware of the security complications that some countries are experiencing… It is aware of the threats and dangers against our country, which will always be a target. The army’s awareness of all this will make its more vigilant and it will always safeguard the higher national interest in accordance with the republic’s laws and constitution.”

“Everyone knows that Algeria derives its strength from its people and security from its army,” he stressed.

This speech retained Gaed Salah’s usual dose of warnings of foreign threats, but contrary to previous ones, it did not mention the “accomplishments” of the president. It also made no reference to him.

Observers interpreted this as a sign that the military commander was affected by the protests. Will he abandon Bouteflika when the protest movement becomes larger? Or is it too soon to jump to such conclusions? Can we say that the army has sided with the angry protesters?

Head of the Movement of Society for Peace and presidential candidate, Abderrazak Makri echoed this confusion, addressing a message to Gaed Salah, asking: “Are you with the people or are you threatening them?”

“Regardless of your intentions, you must know that the only danger to the public order and stability of the country is the political regime, whether you are a part of and protecting it, or which you are fighting and sending it messages in your indirect means,” he added. “You must know that the major corruption that has transformed the state into rival mafia families is threatening the country’s stability and looting its wealth.”

“When the people express their dissatisfaction with all aspects of this political regime, it is giving everyone an opportunity to correct their ways. If you fail to understand what I am saying, then you are a major part of the problem,” he stressed.

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