Algeria buries powerful military chief, but not the system that made him

Algeria buries powerful military chief, but not the system that made him
Comment: Military chief Gaid Salah built a career on undermining the democratic will of the people, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
03 Jan, 2020
General Gaid Salah had been the Algerian army's chief of staff for 15 years [Getty]
The end of 2019 was certainly eventful for Algerians. December was marked, first, by a tense national election that was successfully boycotted by the masses across the country.

Then, 10 days later, came the sudden death of army chief General Gaid Salah - the man who had been de facto leader of Algeria since – at least – the resignation of Bouteflika.

It was Salah who rejected the people's demands for free and fair elections, and it was he who directed the regime's efforts to take back control since the uprising began in February 2019.   

The 79-year-old died of a heart attack and was buried just days after the newly elected President Abdelmadjid Tebboune - the man Salah had backed - was sworn in. 

The initial response by many across the country and even around the world, was one of disbelief. His death was unexpected and took everyone by surprise, especially given the growing targeting of Salah by the Hirak (protest) movement, which saw the General as the ruler of the regime and architect of the military state.

So central was he, that his passing can only be a further destabilising and weakening blow to 'Le Pouvoir' – literally 'The Power', as the Algerian people have come to refer to their ruling class.

In reality, all those he arrested had served under his command and were his close allies only a few months before

Despite the anti-corruption campaign that Salah claimed to be leading from the top as he arrested Bouteflika's allies, including the former president's own brother, Said Bouteflika, Salah's name became a mainstay at weekly protests across the country. In reality, all those he arrested had served under his command and were his close allies only a few months before. 

As he threw them under the bus, one by one, to save himself and the state's control, he only strengthened his public image as the face of the regime. Ironically, he stripped away his own fig-leaves only to better reveal his own power.

In response, protesters consistently refused to let him off the hook, nor did they abandon their demands for the military state to fall in order for Algeria to be free. Salah's resignation was central to this vision of a new, democratic republic, as he was the very epitome of the long military rule of the National Liberation Army (ALN).

Read more: Algeria: An unpopular election

Salah had served in the army since the consolidation of the institution's powers following Algeria's independence in 1962. He had then been the army's commander of ground forces during the bloody civil war that shook the country throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

In this period, a military coup was led against the first freely elected government since independence, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and mass terror ruled the country. Salah's career - and his rise to the top of the institution to which he dedicated his life - was then defined by bloody repression.

The very process through which he made his name was also the one which would lay the ground for the current uprising. His role in the most recent election, which was widely considered corrupt and undemocratic, was then only the last act in a career defined by undermining the democratic will of the people. This time, however, it was not the blood of the people, but their anger and refusal that filled the street. 

It is therefore all the more surprising to see a sympathetic homage being paid to the general by some, such as the activist Islam Benatia, who stated on social media that Salah had "kept his promise to save the blood of Algerians during a tough period".

There may not have been bloodshed at the hands of the state since the February uprisings in Algeria, but Salah has served through many dark chapters of the country's history, during which much blood was shed, democratic decisions and processes overturned, corruption increased, and repression practiced aggressively against the people. This should be remembered as his legacy.

Furthermore, the army has shown itself willing to do everything it can to maintain its hold over Algeria. If blood has not been spilled this year it is not out of the goodness of the general's heart, but because of his inability to divide, weaken, or push back the Hirak for 10 straight months. 

In addition, in this age of social media, the regime is unable to hide as easily as it once did its attempts to arrest activists, repress demonstrations, and forment sectarian divisions between the different sections of the Algerian population - Arab and Berber, religious and secular, liberal and conservative. 

Salah's death has brought new worries to both sides of the current struggle in the country. It represents yet another crisis that the army will have to face, along with the fallout and mass discontent following Tebboune's so-called presidential victory. In fact, the regime appointed a new military leader only hours after Salah's death, General Said Chengriha. 

Some of the romanticised reflections though, like that shared by Benatia, also indicate fears on the ground over Salah's replacement, and whether further, serious aggression awaits the Hirak. 

Indeed, Chengriha is a long-time ally of Salah, who made a name for himself through his ruthless use of force during the black decade. While a newcomer to the political field, his military reputation precedes him. 

Ironically, he stripped away his own fig-leaves only to better reveal his own power

The release of dozens of political prisoners yesterday, including those who had waved the Berber flag after it was banned by the regime, could be interpreted as a sign that the army is conscious of not rocking the boat too much, amid what may be an internal scramble for power. 

But let's not speak too soon. Some 180 people were arrested in the lead up to the presidential elections in mid-December. Only a handful had been released at the time of writing, among them the highly symbolic 86-year-old revolutionary figure and one of the founders of the opposition party, the 'Socialist Forces Front' (FFS), Lakhdar Bouregaa. Bouregaa was detained in June over accusations that he was, "taking part in a scheme to demoralise the army with the aim of harming the nation's defense".   

Whilst these liberations might be offered to the people as an olive branch in Tebboune's attempts to partake in dialogue with the Hirak, it has not gone unnoticed that there remain some 140 political prisoners who haven't been freed.

Among them prominent protest figure
Karim Tabbou, who was a visible, celebrated and trusted leading figure of the movement. This is likely to be the very reason his release was rejected. He poses a real threat, is young enough and healthy enough to lead, shape and organise a mass uprising, unlike Bouregaa who sadly had to have emergency surgery for a hernia during his imprisonment. 

Much like the arrests at the top, the releases appear to be largely symbolic.

The people, mobilised and gearing up for the next phase of the struggle, remain acutely aware of the regime's strategies.

As an activist
shared on social media today, following the stream of releases: "if the regime thinks that this will slow down our revolution, they're wrong! It is but another victory in our path towards independence".

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.