One Algerian strongman general, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, died on December 24, 2019, to be replaced the same day, by… another strongman general, Saïd Chanegriha, as chief of staff of the Algerian army. Outside his own military-security circle and foreign countries with interests in Algeria (France, the U.S., Spain) mourning for Salah was subdued at best. Too much water under the bridge – and blood in the Algerian soil for that.
The promotion of General Saïd Chanegriha to replace Salah at the head of the Algerian military is not a particularly encouraging sign. General Chanegriha, is known to have been a ruthless hard-liner during the “Dirty War” of the 1990s. In one of his earliest statements since his recent installment in his new position as chief of staff of the National Peoples’ Army (ANP), Chanegriba warned of “a dangerous conspiracy” that “threatens the country’s stability and its institutions” which could lead to “chaos.”
While Salah proved to be a somewhat stiff and unimaginative figure, when push came to shove he did essentially single-handedly force from power former president Abdulaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s longest standing president, on April 2, 2019, in response to near universal public pressure.
Mass popular pressure demanded radical political and social change that included sweeping aside the country’s largely discredited old guard, in which the military was a major factor.
Having removed Bouteflika, Salah found himself pressed from all sides. Mass popular pressure demanded radical political and social change that included sweeping aside the country’s largely discredited old guard, in which the military was a major factor. The country’s old guard and the government’s main international backers, on the other hand, took the opposite view. They insisted on no fundamental shift in the country’s sources of political power.
The balancing act could not last forever.
Salah did gently depose Bouteflika and some of the more corrupt business elements close to the president — headed up by his brother, Saïd Bouteteflika, who was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He chose not to intervene earlier, back in 2015, when General Mohammed “Toufik” Mediene was removed as head of Algeria’s powerful Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS – in French). Mediene was a figure more odious in Algeria than Ben Ali was in neighboring Tunisia. Salah also forced into retirement a number of other generals whose reputations were tarnished beyond repair from the “Dirty War” of the 1990s.
When it came to any major re-alignment of power in the country, Salah was a far less enthusiastic reformer. It was here that Salah’s flexibility with the Hirak, the country’s extensive social movement, ended. There would be no change – none – that challenged the pillars of power that had been in place since the 1965 coup d’état that brought Houari Boumedienne and the Algerian military to power. Salah refused in any way to tinker with The Troika—the military security apparatus along with the business and financial elements tied to the energy industry.
Unwilling to step aside and help initiate a needed new dawn to Algerian post-independence politics, Salah again pushed through new presidential elections in September 2019.
Unwilling to step aside and help initiate a needed new dawn to Algerian post-independence politics, and resistant to any calls for a reduced role of the military in the country’s governance, Salah again pushed through new presidential elections in September 2019, according to various news sources.
Despite domestic opposition, Salah’s insistence to enact new presidential elections had international support. The United States, France, and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, supported Salah as did important global energy companies wanting more control over the country’s energy resources. They were all anxious that a new energy law be implemented which would privatize considerable chunks of Algeria’s oil and gas industry. Indeed, Salah was their man. Like the Algerian military, these “foreign friends” feared that including the opposition into the government might compromise the new energy law’s implementation.
There were a number of approved candidates, among them a previously sacked prime minister, Abdelmajid Tebboune who Salah threw his weight behind. With the support of the Algerian military, it should be no surprise that Tebboune won the presidential elections. These elections were opposed and boycotted by the Hirak. While the elections did take place, only 40% of possible voters went to the polls, the lowest voter turnout in Algeria’s post-colonial history.
Commenting on the election, a German news source Die Zeit, put it rather cynically that “the Algerian regime should receive the Nobel Prize for electoral fraud.” Former prime minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune (one of the five candidates, all part of the old regime) allegedly won 58% of the votes and is now president. Tebboune was Salah’s choice; the race between five candidates was mere diversion.
Although he talks of national reconciliation, like Salah did, Algeria’s new president Tebboune appears to offer the opposition a few minor concessions: higher salaries, promises of improved housing and healthcare, all of which were also made by his predecessor but hardly realized. Tebboune essentially has maintained the power structure of the country with as few changes as possible.
With a very thin popular base of his own and entirely dependent on the good graces of Salah, and now those of General Saïd Chanegriha who succeeded him, Tebboune owes his entire political career to the Algerian military. How far can he stray from it? Probably not very far. With Tebboune’s election, at least for the time being, the military has once again secured its grip on power and control of Algeria’s oil wealth for the foreseeable future.
All the rest is theatrics.
The challenge for Salah and now for Chanegriha is to revise the constitution as modestly as possible without seriously challenging existing power relations. Changes as to how Algeria is governed would just be cosmetic.
Abdul Madhjid Tebboune has initiated a campaign to create a new constitution for his country, and to the degree possible, bypass and neutralize the demands of Algeria’s burgeoning protest movement.
As detailed in the Algerian press and elsewhere, Abdul Madhjid Tebboune has initiated a campaign to create a new constitution for his country, and to the degree possible, bypass and neutralize the demands of Algeria’s burgeoning protest movement. A committee of experts drawn from different Algerian university legal experts has been appointed to oversee the task.
Ideally, revising the Algerian constitution will include widespread public consultations, a vote from the Algerian parliament followed by national referendum to approve or disapprove the new constitutional format for the country. Sounds good “in principle” from a distance, but… there are worrying signs.
The new government is moving quickly to isolate the country’s broad-based opposition, known as the Hirak. Concessions to the public with perhaps a genuine democratization and new power relations are highly unlikely. The constitutional reforms appear to offer the trappings of democracy without its essence.
More worrying yet is the fact that despite the rhetoric about a “national dialogue” Tebboune has all but ignored the Hirak; its major figures are not being consulted. Worse, the Algerian repressive apparatus has become more active. Arrests and demonstration breakups are becoming more common.
There will be no new parliamentary elections prior to the constitutional reform. The old parliament dominated by figures either part of, or close to the old ruling class, will still be in the driver’s seat. Contrast that with the Tunisian elections in 2015, where prior to putting together a new constitution, parliamentary elections were held.
This is not the language of national reconciliation and dialogue with the opposition. It should surprise no one that the opposition continues to demonstrate for more far-reaching, genuine changes in the country’s body politic.
It bodes ill for the popular movement. The message is clear enough: the Algerian military is not about to share or cede power with anyone and it will not hesitate to take the necessary steps to insure its place at the top of the heap.
Difficult days loom ahead.