27 March 2019

Algeria: An Army Chief, an Ailing President and a Political Crisis

Photo: Lisa Bryant /VOA
Protester brandishing sign saying 'president not found' in reference to aging and frail leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika (file photo).

Algeria's army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, has urged President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down. Many Algerians support the move, but question whether the army has the legitimacy to take that kind of action.

On Tuesday, Algerian army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah called on the country's top court and parliament to trigger Article 102 of the constitution. It allows the president to be declared unfit to rule for health reasons. But many Algerians and political elites think that lawmakers, rather than the army, should decide on whether or not to remove President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, as they alone have the legitimacy to do so.

The 82-year-old Bouteflika has been in power for two decades. After Algeria gained independence in 1962, he initially served as the country's minister for minister of youth, sports and tourism. A year later, Bouteflika, still in his twenties, took charge of Algeria's Foreign Ministry and remained in this position until 1979. In 1974 and 1975, he also served as the president of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Bouteflika became Algeria's president in 1999 and has remained in power ever since. He has been rarely seen in public since 2013 for health reasons, however.

'Willing to sacrifice Bouteflika'

Pressure had been mounting on Bouteflika in recent weeks, with protesters demanding the aging leader not run for a fifth term as president. Eventually, Bouteflika caved to his critics and declared he would not run for office. But as no presidential election has yet been held, he remains in power -- though it is unclear whether he is doing so out of his own volition, or because his political allies are urging him to.

So why would Salah opt to make Bouteflika's removal from office an issue of national debate? After all, several week ago, he had backed the president serving one more term.

Maria Josua, an expert on Algeria at Hamburg's German Institute for Global Studies (GIGA), says that the army has come to realize how eager citizens are to see Bouteflika gone. "The army understood that none of its efforts to stop the protests have worked, which is why they are now willing to sacrifice Bouteflika to regain political stability," she explained. The army believes this will calm tensions, Josua said, though added she doubts this will be the case.

Army trying to stay in control?

Samir Bouakouir, chairman of Algeria's Socialist Forces Front (FFS) party, has deemed Salah's call to remove the president "an attempt to violently overthrow the democratic revolution of February 22." It was on that day earlier this year that Algerians first started protesting in large numbers against Bouteflika running for office again. Bouakouir has accused the army of trying to control the protest movement.

He called Salah's "constitutional pseudo-solution" nothing more than a measure to remain in charge. "Gaid Salah is infected by the Sissi syndrome," Bouakouir said, in allusion to Egypt's current president and former army chief, Abdul Fattah el-Sissi, who is presently trying to change the Egyptian constitution so that he can run for another term.

GIGA's Josua argued that urging Bouteflika to resign equates to a kind of coup, as he "will be replaced by another figure affiliated with the regime, who will be expected to keep things are they were." Algeria's army has never been keen on reforms, she said. While it achieved great things in the country's struggle for independence, Josua explained, the army is also partly to blame for Algeria's bloody civil war, as it refused to recognize the Islamist electoral victory in the early 1990s.

The role of the army

The army in neighboring Tunisia has played a pivotal political role in the country recent years. It did not interfere in the 2011 revolution and thereby allowed Tunisia to become a democracy. In Egypt, by contrast, the army intervened in 2013 and ousted the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi. Since then, Egypt has returned to being an authoritarian state that does not tolerate dissent.

In Josua's view, the Algeria's army has more in common with its Egyptian, rather than its Tunisian, counterpart, at least politically speaking. The Algerian army, "like that in Egypt, is akin to a deep state with its own economic interests, which is why there is always the risk that a military rule could develop," she said.

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