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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Algerian generals are being fired without explanation

Algeria's media are unable to decipher the reason for the wholesale clear-out as uncertainty looms over next April's presidential election

Algerian chief of staff Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah presides over a military parade in Algiers, Algeria. AP
Algerian chief of staff Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah presides over a military parade in Algiers, Algeria. AP

Heads have been rolling in the Algerian army, the North African nation's most respected institution. Top generals are being fired – without explanation – at a rate never seen before.

Since late June, nearly all the security hierarchy's top officials have been replaced. The changes are especially dramatic in a country with the best-equipped military in North Africa which has spent 25 years fighting extremists. Today, Algeria is a bulwark against extremism for the West.

Yet the noisy Algerian press, which habitually decodes the country's often-inscrutable politics, has been unable to decipher the reason for this wholesale clear-out.

Is a scandal surrounding a major cocaine seizure the reason for at least some of the firings, or is it about traditional rivalries among powerful clans? Or are they linked to changes connected to next April's presidential election, which itself is the subject of another mystery – who is running? No candidate has yet declared because everyone is waiting to learn whether President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 81, partially paralysed and rarely seen in public, will seek a fifth term.

Such changes in the military hierarchy, only some of which have been announced publicly, are the prerogative of the president, who is also minister of defence. But the influence of the army is a perennial mystery.

The wave of changes began with the June 26 firing of Gen. Abdelghani Hamel, a powerful police chief. Along with Hamel went the men he had placed in more than six top regional police posts from Algiers, the capital, to Setif, in the east – as well as the commander in charge of Algiers' international airport.

The latest to be axed were two senior air force figures.

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The removal of Hamel, who had held the top police post since 2010, may – or may not – be linked to May's seizure of 701 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a cargo ship from Brazil and Hamel's harsh words for gendarmes investigating the find.

However, eight days after Hamel's firing, it was gendarmerie chief Maj Gen Menad Nouba who lost his job.

The sword then fell on the top brass of the army, the backbone of the Algerian state. Region by region, top leaders were removed. Only one of the six military districts has been left untouched.

"No one is indispensable," said political sociologist Nasser Djabi, "even the all-powerful". He recalled the removal in 2015 of one of Algeria's most powerful figures, intelligence chief Gen Mediene, known as Toufik, after 25 years on the job. "If you ask me who profited from these changes, what is the balance of power ... I'm unable to say. It's very opaque."

Ahmed Gaid Salah, army chief of staff since 2004 and vice defence minister – among Bouteflika's most faithful servants – oversaw ceremonial changes in the regional commands, at one point saying they were dictated by "competence" and "merit".

The army magazine El Djeich last week reported that the new appointments "embody the principle of alternating posts of responsibility" and "are an opportunity to encourage human capacities, reward experience and push (new chiefs) to redouble their efforts in the service of our army".

The army, which grew out of the fighting force that won Algeria's independence from France in 1962, was long seen as the kingmaker in presidential elections. Only Bouteflika – in office since 1999 – and the country's short-lived first elected head of state were civilians.

However, army chief Gaid Salah in July cast aside any notion of an army role in politics. Responding to an opposition suggestion that the military lead a transition period and delay presidential elections, Gaid Salah said: "The National Popular Army is an army that knows its limits."