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A political newcomer with frontline military experience, Chengriha has inherited an “unprecedented and difficult situation” marked by a popular protest movement of historic proportions.
Will the new Algerian army chief of staff address the country’s popular uprising in the same combative tone as his predecessor, or will he try to make peace with the protesters?
Saïd Chengriha, 74 years old, was appointed as the new army chief of staff by Algeria’s recently elected president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, just a few hours after the death of Ahmed Gaïd Salah on 23 December.
“The swift appointment shows that the army is worried about the consequences of leaving this essential position vacant. It sends a strong message”, Karima Direche, a historian and expert on Algeria, said.
A political newcomer with frontline military experience, Chengriha, who built up a reputation as a brutal, if not bloodthirsty, leader during the country’s “black decade”, has serious work to do to win over ‘hirak’ demonstrators who have directed slogans at the top military commander since the start of the protest movement last February.
Close ties to Salah
Hardly a household name, Chengriha was rumoured to replace Salah ever since a massive government shakeup was undertaken in August 2018 at the highest levels of Algeria’s military and security apparatus.
During this unprecedented purge, Chengriha was promoted to succeed General Lahcen Tafer as chief of ground forces.
“This historic shakeup helped to exclude the opposing clan, that of General Toufik [editor’s note: former head of the Intelligence and Security Department (DRS) who was sentenced to 15 years in prison], secure key positions in the security apparatus and ensure the future of Salah’s clan, that way they could continue to exert control over the regime”, Moussaab Hammoudi, a political scientist at France’s School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), said.
Chengriha’s rise to Algeria’s top military post also serves as a way to reward him for being loyal to his predecessor. The two men knew each another well. Early in Chengriha’s military career, he was sent alongside Salah to the Sinai front during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. “He is a military oligarch who has always shown unwavering loyalty to the military leadership so as to prop up the system and its interests”, Direche said.
His gradual rise
Originally from Aurès, a region in north-eastern Algeria that is home to the Berber Chaoui ethnic group, Chengriha gradually rose among the Algerian army’s ranks on the coattails of Salah. After attending the Soviet Voroshilov military academy in the 1970s, he worked his way up the ladder and was promoted from commander of a tank battalion in Béchar to head of an armoured division within the 4th military region, in Constantine.
In the midst of major counter-terrorism efforts, he was appointed to command the Lakhdaria outpost, under the supervision of General Abdelaziz Medjahed, and in 1995 he was called to serve as commander of the Sidi Bel Abbès operational sector.
After a stint as commander of the applied school of armour, he returned to Béchar, where he was appointed to lead the highly strategic 3rd military region, a post held by Salah at the end of the 1980s.
Promoted to the rank of major general in 2003 by ousted former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Chengriha was tasked with border control in southwest Algeria. “He has had a classic military career, but what stands out is his operational experience, which his predecessors have not always had. He has never been involved in political decision-making”, Hammoudi commented.
A political newcomer
The new interim army chief of staff and political newcomer has a daunting challenge ahead of him. Never in the country’s history has the army been so visible on the political stage.
Now that Salah, who became very unpopular within the protest movement because he came off as the contested regime’s protector, is out of the picture, Chengriha should focus on bringing the army back to its original role as a political arbitrator that remains in the shadows. “It was risky for Salah to be so outspoken and in direct contact with members of the protest movement. He was vulnerable. We can expect the army to go back to its old-school practices”, Direche said.
But how will Chengriha make this happen?
According to Hammaoudi, the army’s initial moves will be decisive: “Chengriha is walking into a minefield because his legitimacy neither comes from the protesters nor the Algerian Constitution, as the result of the presidential election was widely disputed. He is faced with a conundrum: move towards a violent confrontation or relinquish power to civilians”.
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