The Architect of a New Era in Algeria Is Dead But a Rare Opportunity Has Come to Life

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP Photo: Yad Kramdi

Grand politics so often comes down to mere circumstance, shaped by, as the post-war British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, purportedly said, “Events, dear boy, events.”

So it is with Algeria, where last week former Prime Minister Abdelmajid Tebboune was inaugurated as the country’s first new president for two decades. Just days later, army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, the architect of this new era in Algeria, the man who pushed long-time leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika into resigning earlier this year and then forced through the election that brought Tebboune to power in the teeth of mass protests, unexpectedly died.

Suddenly, the Algeria he leaves behind looks different. Not because his death leaves the army without a chief – that vacancy has been swiftly filled – but because Tebboune, who only last week looked like a puppet of the military, now has a chance to make his own destiny. Events have gifted him an opportunity to change the political dynamic in Algeria. Whether he grasps it will depend on how he handles competing pressure groups.

The elections this month failed to draw a line under the past 11 months of protests. The sudden death of Gaid Salah at the end of a tumultuous year has opened up a possible way out of the country’s most serious political crisis since the civil war.

Despite a widespread boycott of the vote, Tebboune said his election had halted “the demise of the state and its institutions.” As president, Bouteflika portrayed himself as the guarantor of stability and the arbiter between the different branches of power – the army, the intelligence agencies and big business.

In 2013, he gave his army chief the task of curbing the power of the intelligence services and it was Gaid Salah who sent the head of intelligence, Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene, firstly into retirement, and then, earlier this year, to jail for 15 years. Using one branch of the power structure to curb the powers of the others was how Bouteflika retained control for so long.

With Gaid Salah out of the picture, the new president can reclaim this role again. The army has spent the past eight months since Bouteflika stepped down sending powerful figures to jail, ostensibly to placate the street protests, but in reality to remove opposition. Tebboune could tip the scales in the other direction, restoring the power of the presidency.

As with most of those who wield real power in Algeria, little is known about Said Chengriha, the man who replaced Gaid Salah as head of the army. Algerians on social media have struggled to decipher how his appointment might affect the protest movement. In a way, though, it scarcely matters for now.

For his 15 years as head of the army, Gaid Salah’s control over the institution and his understanding of the political players was unparalleled. Chengriha is new to the role and in his 70s. His ability to influence events will be limited. Now would be a good moment for Tebboune to install a figure loyal to him and curb the power of the army, if that is what he wants.

The dilemma for the new president is that the Hirak protest movement is now effectively a fourth power-base. It has not yet coalesced into a political force but it has proven stamina, having survived for 11 months, despite official repression and widespread arrests. The power of the Hirak may be temporary but its very formlessness – no discernible leaders, no particular social grouping – makes it very hard to dismantle.

Before the election, the government put its faith in the “silent majority.” The protesters dismissed the election as a “masquerade” to keep the old guard in power and boycotted it. Voter turnout was the lowest in recent history (under Bouteflika, the figures were always artificially inflated, in any case) but nonetheless, the election happened and so did the inauguration. Neither side can claim to have triumphed over the other. The protesters toppled a president, but the army forced through an election.

Tebboune now has three options. He could assert his authority and order force to end the demonstrations. He could try negotiating with the demonstrators, but that would lend them credibility and possibly expose him to demands he could never meet, such as dismantling the intelligence agencies. Or he could do what the government has been doing for months already: squeezing the margins of the protests, blocking more and more people from travelling to the capital in the hope that the Hirak will eventually fade away. This, ironically, would be the riskiest strategy of all, giving the movement time to become a political force, with political leaders.

Now the demise of Gaid Salah has presented a fourth option: replace the head of the army with a weaker figure loyal to him, negotiate with the Hirak while maintaining the threat of widespread repression and bounce the competing power structures into accepting some change – perhaps a new constitution – in return for an end to a year of street protests.

Nobody would be happy with that compromise. It is more than the crumbs the army offered but falls far short of the sweeping changes the protesters want. Without concessions to the Hirak, the protests will go on. With too many concessions to the street, the army would remove Tebboune.

Algeria’s new president now has to walk a delicate tightrope – a skill his predecessor mastered for two decades. But it could save him from a catastrophic fall.

 

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian