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Exclusive - Army Chief’s Contradictory Stances on Protests Stirs Raging Debate in Algeria

Exclusive - Army Chief’s Contradictory Stances on Protests Stirs Raging Debate in Algeria

Thursday, 25 April, 2019 - 07:45
Algerian chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah. (AP)
Algiers - Boualem Goumrassa
Chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah’s contradictory stances on the popular protests in Algeria have sparked confusion and raging debates in the country. The same man who has called for the departure of “all symbols of the regime” has also criticized the protests that have been making the same demand.

When Algerians took to the streets on February 22 to rally against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run in elections, they did not know whether the powerful military chief will back their movement or whether he had his own roadmap for the country.

Bouteflika has since resigned, succumbing to street pressure. Abdelkader Bensalah has been appointed interim president, a move that was welcomed by Salah, but fiercely opposed by the protesters, putting them at odds with the military.

Despite these differences, the protesters still recall the images of Salah, gathered with his military commanders and officials on April 2, as he ordered the “gang” ruling Algeria to step down. He was referring to Bouteflika and his brother Saeed. Later that day, the president resigned.

The protesters were then optimistic that Salah would side with their demands for the removal of all of Bouteflika’s entourage. They were met with dismay, however, on April 10 when Salah firmly called on the protesters to cease their movements because they were making “impossible demands.” That same day, he announced his support for Bensalah. He also indirectly accused France of seeking to impose figures of its choice to govern Algeria during the interim period.

The French embassy in Algeria stressed in a statement Wednesday that Paris respects the sovereignty of Algeria and the choices of its people.

Algerians were again optimistic that Salah would side with them when Tayeb Belaiz, the head of constitutional council, resigned. Their hopes were short-lived when on Tuesday the military chief slammed the protesters for refusing to recognize the legitimate authority of ministers. He also slammed opposition parties for boycotting a meeting Monday that was aimed at searching for a political solution to end the crisis.

Salah again shifted tones, when on Wednesday, he said that the military “stands by the people to reach their goals of achieving the desired change.” The army, he added, will continue to ensure the safety of the protests.

Political analyst Nadjib Belhimer noted that Salah was forced to abandon his support to Bouteflika when he ascertained that the protests would not only oust the president, but him as well. Misleading reports tried to make it appear as though Salah had toppled the president.

“Since then, direct negotiations kicked off between the millions of protesters and the military chief, who addresses them from barracks,” he added.

“Salah is balancing between exerting efforts on the ground to end the rallies, while also making pledges. As time went on, his room for maneuver became smaller,” he explained.

“His latest speech revealed that the army was keen on renewing the image of the regime, which brings us back to square one. The Algerians have not changed their goals for a radical regime change, but the authorities want to remain in power by breaking up the peaceful rallies,” he said.

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