Algeria’s de facto ruler, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, has a remarkable ability to dispose of enemies. Having quietly, some would say accidentally, risen to the top of the Algerian military through the 1990s and 2000s, in 2014 Gaid Salah began to methodically clear the political field. 

That year, Gaid Salah made the decision to support another term for the ailing president Bouteflika, pitting himself against General Mohammed Mediène, the powerful head of the DRS, then Algeria’s most powerful intelligence agency. The decision paid dividends. Bouteflika still had enough strength to fire Mediène, and Gaid Salah became the country’s most powerful security chief. A position which he used to purge as many of Mediène’s allies as he was able. 

Four years later, in 2018, Gaid Salah struck again. This time, after 700 kilos of cocaine were seized by the Algerian Navy, Gaid Salah used the subsequent investigation to behead Algeria’s second most powerful intelligence service, the DGSN (Directorate General for National Security). Its leader, General Abdelghani Hamel was sacked, along with scores of his allies. 

In just four years, Gaid Salah had used unswerving loyalty to a clearly incapacitated president to neutralize two of the most powerful factions in the Pouvoir.

In just four years, Gaid Salah had used unswerving loyalty to a clearly incapacitated president to neutralize two of the most powerful factions in the Pouvoir. 

As mass-protests rocked Algeria this spring, Gaid Salah initially attempted to continue this well-tested strategy, standing by the president and hoping to flush out more potential enemies. However, the general, by now deputy defense minister, soon realized that this time the president’s career really was over. 

On March 26, he made the most dramatic political decision of his career and publicly called for the president’s resignation. Without the support of the military, Bouteflika and his core of allies could not continue. Six days later, the President resigned.

Now, with the political field wide open (within the deep state elite at least), Gaid Salah’s peculiar talent for eliminating rivals truly flourished. Over the course of the summer much of the ex-President’s core allies were arrested, including his brother Said Bouteflika, who was thought to be the real power behind the incapacitated president. All previous enemies of Gaid Salah were also arrested (such as Abdelghani Hamel), as were many of the Algeria’s oligarchs—whose fortunes tend to have been accumulated as a result of patronage from factions in the Pouvoir. 

The unassuming General has now smashed every major faction in the Pouvoir: the crony-capitalist “Bouteflikas,” the hard-line “eradicators,” and the regime-friendly political parties. On September 23, Said Bouteflika, Mohammed Mediène, Mediène’s successor at the DRS and the head of a pro-regime opposition party were all sentenced to 15 years in jail. Furthermore, not only has Gaid Salah now had the political leaders of each faction jailed, he has also struck the oligarchs that fund them—potentially permanently crippling their political fortunes.

Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah presides a military parade at the Cherchell Houari Boumediene in Algiers July 1 2018. AP Photo Anis Belghoul

Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah presides a military parade in Algiers, July 1 2018. (AP Photo Anis Belghoul)

But despite his smashing of the Pouvoir, Gaid Salah has not gained any popular following among Algerians, and it is not clear where the general could find a political constituency. Over the last 34 weeks of protests, Gaid Salah has cracked down on leftists, liberals, and Kabyle activists at the same time as he has cut his swathe through the elite. According to summer polling, carried out by the Brookings Institute, 80% of Algerians, including 80% of soldiers, do not want Gaid Salah, or any other general, to be president, even though around 70% of Algerians broadly support him continuing as head of the military. With so little support, even among the armed forces, the “Egyptian option” of a military takeover seems to be closed off.

What next? Gaid Salah lacks the political support to take power himself and has wiped out almost every other constituency that would normally be able to take power. In order for the general to remain safe and powerful, two options present themselves for the December 12 elections: Either Gaid Salah can find a candidate among old regime figures still standing, or, the general could allow an outsider to run for the presidency in the hope of being able to hold on to his influence behind the scenes.

Given his tendency for knocking out political rivals, it is hard to imagine Gaid Salah opting for the second option—he would feel any serious outsider candidate to be too much of a threat. Therefore, the first option, of finding a friendly, remaining, insider is probably his preferred choice. For example, he could back Liamine Zeroual, prime minister from 1994 to 1999 and one of Gaid Salah’s few prominent allies. 

However, the fact remains that Gaid Salah only has one real constituency—the military, and within that constituency a very high proportion of people support the protests—maybe not as high as the 80% that Brookings found in July, but still probably a firm majority, given the continued convergence of views and lack of violence between protesters and soldiers. 

Broadly, Algerian soldiers support the protesters’ aim of a total change in regime and whatever person Gaid Salah most desires to be president, his priority will be to hold together the cohesiveness of the military. If the military splits apart then his career is finished.

Continued protests, calling for a total change in leadership, will influence Gaid Salah’s political calculus, and could yet force his hand towards a Tunisian-style, negotiated transition.

Therefore, continued protests, calling for a total change in leadership, will influence Gaid Salah’s political calculus, and could yet force his hand towards a Tunisian-style, negotiated transition. Pressure from protesters, mediated through the military, is a powerful check on Gaid Salah’s freedom of action.

It is a narrow path, and one requiring immense courage from the Algerian people, but it is within reach. The Algerian Spring could yet turn into summer.