Algeria’s powerful army chief dies at pivotal point in political crisis

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Algeria’s powerful army chief, who masterminded the state’s response to mass protests this year, died suddenly of a heart attack on Monday, and a likely successor quickly emerged from the same old guard the demonstrators want swept away.

Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah had become the most visible figure in Le Pouvoir - the “power”, as Algerians describe their secretive ruling elite, helping to bring down long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April.

As military chief of staff, his strategy was to replace Bouteflika and his allies while keeping the essential structure of power unchanged and allowing the protests to continue, hoping to wait out the demonstrators.

Huge crowds continued to flood the streets through much of 2019 to demand wholesale change to the leadership, unappeased by Bouteflika’s resignation and the arrest of many of his aides and allies on corruption charges.

The protest movement in the major oil- and gas-exporting country has no formal leaders or organization. But among its main demands throughout the weekly rallies has been that the army step away from its central political role since Algeria’s 1962 independence from France, with marchers often chanting: “A civilian state, not a military state.”

As the year wore on, protesters also increasingly called for Gaed Salah himself to resign, especially after he pushed hard for an election to replace Bouteflika that they regarded as illegitimate while the old guard still held sway.

The new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, quickly named the head of the land forces, General Said Chengriha, as the new acting chief of staff to replace Gaed Salah.

Chengriha, 74, is from the same generation of powerful generals as Gaed Salah, who was 79, both men having started their careers in the guerrilla forces that rose up against French colonial rule.

“The army hierarchy is unified and it will move on after Gaed Salah as it did before him. Algeria’s army is a single bloc, not under the influence of one general but with consensus as its engine,” said a retired general who asked not to be named.

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