Under the auspices of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, Gaid Salah, Algeria’s army chief, and one of the country’s most powerful men, is tipped to become president after a prolonged series of nationwide protests culminated in the resignation of long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
After remaining loyal to the ousted president for two decades, Salah drew significant attention when he triggered a constitutional process to remove Bouteflika in a televised address on March 26.
Bouteflika’s Former Comrade’s Journey
Salah’s journey into politics began at the age of 17, when he joined the National Liberation Army, which freed Algeria from French colonization in 1962. Some years after Algeria’s independence, he moved to Russia to study at Vystrel Military Artillery Academy. Back in Algeria, Salah successively commanded various military regions before being named Chief of Staff Land Forces during Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s.
When Bouteflika came into office again in 2004, he appointed Salah as the Algerian People’s National Army senior officer to guard his regime. After Bouteflika suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013, Salah established himself as the de facto ruler, and was appointed the deputy minister of defense in the same year. Two years later, Salah became the army’s strongman following the departure of veteran intelligence chief General Mohamed Toufik Mediène and self-proclaimed “God of Algeria.”
When Algeria erupted in protest against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office, Salah sided with his comrade, maintaining that the army would remain the “guarantor” of stability against the protesters whom he defiantly accused of trying to “bring Algeria back to the years of civil war.”
However, as the protests gained momentum, Salah revoked his support of Bouteflika, stating that the army shared the same ambitions as the demonstrators. He then called for Bouteflika to be declared unfit for office under Article 102 of the country’s constitution.
Despite Bouteflika subsequently stepping down on April 2, the Algerian people were still unsatisfied. They have vowed to keep protesting until they achieve radical reform and remove all traces of the old regime, including government officials and military figures. Nevertheless, the task may prove difficult given the protestors’ apparent belief that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are ostensibly backing Salah to further consolidate his power over Algeria.
The UAE’s Invisible Hand in Algeria
Salah is a close ally of Russia, and he is apprehensive of the U.S.’ Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which are aware of the fortune that Salah has amassed and hidden in bank accounts in the money laundering haven that is the UAE.
The UAE is resorting to “aggressive diplomacy” to strengthen the Algerian autocracy behind closed doors.
Algerians view Salah’s strong relations with Abu Dhabi with cynicism, particularly following his secret visit to the UAE on December 2, 2018, to attend in person, instead of former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, the UAE’s celebration of its 47th National Day. Salah reportedly met with UAE officials to discuss bilateral military cooperation. Three months later, following the continued large-scale demonstrations, Salah visited the UAE again at the invitation of Sheikh Mohamed Ben Zayed Al Nahyane, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
French newspaper Mondafrique underscored that the UAE is resorting to “aggressive diplomacy” to strengthen the Algerian autocracy behind closed doors. Six years ago, the UAE operated similarly in Egypt when it supported Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s overthrow of the country’s first democratically-elected president, Islamist Mohamed Morsi.
Although the UAE has not officially expressed its position on the protests thus far, Emirati state-owned media outlet Sky News Arabia has hailed Salah as the “man of the hour,” representing him as the advocate of the people.
Nevertheless, Algerians waved banners in the streets and went on social media to speak out against the UAE’s involvement in the “Lands of the Martyrs.”
Mohamed Larbi Zitout, former Algerian diplomat and founding member of the opposition Algerian Rashad movement, said in mid-March that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are gearing up to foil the popular protests as they have done during several Arab uprisings in the region. He asserted that the Gulf monarchs have a “phobia” of revolutions because they anticipate that the democratization of any regime in the region will “bring them down” because they themselves “exist without a popular base.”
Meanwhile, the UAE seems to be unwavering in its covert support of Salah in Algeria. Presidential elections have been scheduled on July 4, while speaker of the upper house Abdelkader Bensalah acts as interim president.
In the event that Salah becomes Algeria’s next president, the Algerian people will have a choice: either surrender or continue to challenge the specter of autocracy.