Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 February 2020

Ahmed Gaid Salah: the general who guided Algeria’s elite through the protests

As the backbone of Algeria's opaque regime, he became one of the North African country's most powerful men

Algerian military chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah attends president Abdelmajid Tebboune's inauguration ceremony in the presidential palace, in Algiers. AP
Algerian military chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah attends president Abdelmajid Tebboune's inauguration ceremony in the presidential palace, in Algiers. AP

Algeria's military chief for more than a decade, General Ahmed Gaid Salah was one of the most powerful men in North Africa. He died of a heart attack at the age of 79 on Monday.

But who was the man who guided Algeria's elite through the protests that began in April, sparked by the Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid to run for a fifth presidential term?

Bouteflika appointed him in 2004 to head the armed forces.

For years, Gaid Salah unwaveringly supported Bouteflika, even backing the longtime leader's unpopular bid to run again earlier this year.

In early April, Gaid Salah called on his boss to resign. Bouteflika quit the same day.

That left the army chief effectively in control of the country.

Born in 1940 in Batna region, some 300 kilometres (190 miles) southwest of Algiers, Gaid Salah spent more than six decades in the armed forces.

At the age of 17, he joined Algeria's National Liberation Army in its gruelling eight-year war against French colonial forces.

When the country won independence in 1962 after 132 years as a French colony, he joined the army, attended a Soviet military academy and rose through the ranks.

Gaining a reputation for a hot temper, he commanded several regions before becoming chief of Algeria's land forces at the height of a decade-long civil war pitting the regime against Islamist insurgents.

In 2004, as he hit retirement age, he was picked by Bouteflika to replace overall chief of staff Mohamed Lamari, who had opposed the president's quest for a second mandate.

By 2013, the general had helped Bouteflika dismantle the feared DRS intelligence agency, sending its powerful head Mohamed "Toufik" Mediene into retirement two years later.

Today the DRS is defanged, Bouteflika is off the scene and many of his allies, including his formerly powerful brother, are being prosecuted for graft as part of investigations encouraged by Gaid Salah.

Following Bouteflika's departure, the military chief, also deputy defence minister, was undisputedly in charge of Algeria and issued veiled threats to demonstrators.

He exercised considerable influence over the justice department and the civilian administration of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah.

He was also seen as close to new president Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who took office last week following a vote bitterly opposed by protesters.

Weeks ago Flavien Bourrat, a researcher at the Institut de Recherche Strategique de l'Ecole Militaire (Inserm) in Paris, said Gaid Salah enjoyed relatively unified support within the army.

But protesters, who initially praised him for his intervention to force Bouteflika's resignation, began to despise the general.

He had categorially rejected their key demands of deep reforms, the establishment of transitional institutions and the dismantling of the military-dominated regime.

Indeed, he made virtually no concessions, and was the driving force behind a highly controversial December 12 election that brought Tebboune to power.

The poll was widely rejected by protesters, who argued no vote could be valid until regime figures had left office and reforms were carried out.

Updated: December 24, 2019 05:15 PM

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