Algeria: President Abdelmadjid Tebboune now the sole master of the game
The unexpected death of Ahmed Gaïd Salah, chief of staff of the army and strong man of the regime since the fall of Bouteflika, changed the situation for the new president Abdelmadjid Tebboune and pushed him to play the appeasement card.
Abdelmadjid Tebboune is well known. As the minister of housing and urban planning from 2012 to 2017, he played a crucial role in the construction of millions of social housing units promised by then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He was also responsible for the pharaonic mosque of Algiers (that grossly exceeded the €1.2bn [$1.3bn] budget).
In his brief stint as prime minister between May and August 2017, he tried unsuccessfully to limit the influence of company bosses in the conduct of public affairs. He will also be remembered as having met France’s prime minister on the sly in Paris without the authorisation of Saïd, Bouteflika’s brother and counsellor.
During his brief time at the head of the government, Tebboune had the image of a politician capable of dazzling coups, ready to wage blitzkrieg wars. And as a strategist prepared to bide his time in silence (as he had for two years) to prepare for a winning return to El Mouradia.
Elected president of the Republic on 12 December 2019 after a widely contested election, he has five years to prove himself. The circumstances are not favourable, trapped as he is between an economic crisis and the prospect of chaos in neighbouring Libya. His first steps in the palace of El Mouradia will be analysed foremost in terms of his relations with the military, the backbone of power since 1962. The fact that the military called on Bouteflika to resign — and he did — illustrates its political weight.
The situation changed abruptly a few days after Tebboune’s investiture. On 23 December, a heart attack claimed the life of the army chief of staff and deputy defence minister, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, known as AGS. As a strong man of the regime since the fall of Bouteflika in April, he played a major role in Tebboune’s election.
It was Salah who, at the last minute quashed the option of Azzedine Mihoubi, of the National Democratic Rally (RND), a favourite of many in the army command. According to reports, on the day before the election, at 11 p.m., Mihoubi received a phone call from a high-ranking military official who told him to withdraw. AGS successfully vetoed an RND victory. The army finally supported Tebboune.
Release of prisoners of conscience
The disappearance of the new president’s protector has shuffled the cards, reconfiguring El Mouradia’s relations with the Tagarins, a district of Algiers where the defence ministry is located. Significantly, the post of deputy defence minister has not been filled in the bloated government presented by Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad on 2 January. Also, will the army withdraw from the political scene or is there a lack of consensus to designate the successor to AGS, who held the post since September 2013?
In addition, Said Chengriha, acting head of the general staff, does not sit on the new executive, and, at the time of publication, the 74-year-old military officer had not been confirmed as the permanent replacement. Considered more level-headed than AGS, more political and less divisive, yet unable to influence decisions, Chengriha may be the man of appeasement between the presidency and the military.
A return to the collegiality in decision-making within the army, which had prevailed in the military institution for three decades, has begun to take place behind the scenes. The influence and uncompromising nature of AGS, appointed to the general staff in 2004, had shattered this practice.
Unlike Bouteflika, Tebboune has no truck with the army and harbours neither rancour nor resentment towards the high-ranking officers. This is a major change, as the former chief maintained confrontational and often times rude relations with the generals, exacerbating the tensions between them in order to remain in power, and dismantling the intelligence services under the pretext of restructuring them. When the former president declared the need for establishing a civil state and requested the army to return to the barracks in 2019, Gaïd Salah, showed that the generals remained the sole makers – or unmakers – of presidents.
While it is still too early to measure the extent of the political consequences of AGS’s death, his disappearance frees Tebboune from the burden of prisoners of conscience. The former army chief had rejected all requests for the release of people imprisoned for their activism in the Hirak or for their opposition to the 12 December presidential election, for waving the Berber flag or criticising the army and its leading role in political or judicial decision-making.
Tebboune now has free rein on this issue. The release of 76 prisoners on 2 January is a sign of a desire for calm. A source close to the new government told us: “All the prisoners of conscience should have been released after the inauguration. Then the controversy broke out over ‘justice on the telephone’. Instructions were given to slow down the pace of releases. Eventually, all unjustly incarcerated detainees will be released.”
Dialogue with Hirak
Another poisonous legacy of the AGS era was his antagonistic stance towards Hirak. It is an understatement to say that the deceased chief of staff’s untimely intrusions into public debate and his inflammatory statements helped to blow the embers of protest. Since the beginning of the year, Tebboune’s advisers and emissaries have been busy sending out soothing messages, multiplying discreet meetings with members of the opposition and figures from the popular movement. The new presidency wants to convince people of its willingness to engage in dialogue, or even consultation.
For the time being, however, hostility and mistrust remain strong. “It is all very well to see each other and to exchange views, but no roadmap has been established. We’re navigating in a state of uncertainty, approximation and improvisation,” an opposition leader confided to us. “To make up for the lack of popular legitimacy with which he begins his mandate, Tebboune should, according to his entourage, quickly build new bridges towards Hirak and the opposition. This is an urgent matter.”
The appointment on 8 January of Professor Ahmed Laraba as head of the committee of experts working on the constitutional review was greeted with scepticism. Laraba had already been the architect of the 2016 reform, which was to be headed up by former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia, sentenced at the end of 2019 on charges of corruption.
The composition of the Djerad government has also caused some gnashing of teeth. Eleven of its 39 members have already participated in the executive under Bouteflika. Belkacem Zeghmati, Minister of Justice remains. For some, this is a sign the Algerian “deep state” retains its power, despite the new configuration. This will be bad news for Tebboune, whose civil rights agenda is being closely monitored.