playing nice

Algeria: Tensions mount as Tebboune and Chengriha butt heads

By Thomas Hamamdjian

Posted on October 19, 2020 23:52

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune speaks during a press conference Friday, Dec.13, 2019 in Algiers. (AP Photo/Fateh Guidoum)

The reorganisation of Algeria’s major institutions is causing friction between the president and the chief of staff.

Things have been going badly between President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Chief of Staff Saïd Chengriha, in recent weeks despite a friendly presidential visit at the Ministry of the National Defense headquarters on 10 October.

Several issues have contributed to the build-up of tensions between the two men, including: foreign policy, constitutional reform, interference in the management of security and defence matters and appointments and changes made by Tebboune in different institutions.

Growing tensions

The dismissal of retired General Major Abdelaziz Medjahed from his position as defence and security adviser to the President surprised many. He is very close with Chengriha as he was not only his direct superior for many years but also a trench mate during the war on terrorism in the early 1990s.

His new assignment at the National Institute of Global Strategy is seen as putting the man who was supposed to ensure coordination between the army and the presidency in the closet.

Medjahed would would also have been involved in international security issues involving Algeria, notably the Libyan and Sahelian crises. A role that annoyed Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum and the head of foreign intelligence Youcef Bouzit.

Another bump in the road between Tebboune and Chengriha are the recent visits – separated by just a few days – of head of AFRICOM, Stephen Townsend and the American Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper.

READ MORE Algeria: Who’s who in President Tebboune’s growing inner circle

“The American visit to Algeria felt like an attempt to force the National People’s Army (NPA) into intervening more directly with Libya and Sahel at a time when the United States is withdrawing from Africa” said a retired a senior Algerian officer.

Too friendly with Washington?

“Having received both sends a bad signal to the Americans,” added the military, suggesting that President Tebboune has been too complacent with Washington.

Not to mention the anti-Russian and anti-Chinese statements that Esper made in Tunisia on the evening of his visit to Algiers, exasperating the Chief of Staff, who two days earlier had hosted the boss of the Russian military cooperation, Dmitri Shugaev.

“From the start, Chengriha was hostile to the army’s involvement in politics and wanted to distance himself from his predecessor. He has two concerns: improving the image of the army in the eyes of public opinion, following the scandal of generals on the run or in prison for corruption offences. The second is to rebalance power by reducing that of the Ministry of Defence’s [led by Tebboune himself], which has become a stronghold of power.

While Ahmed Gaïd Salah received the posts of Chief of Staff and Minister of Defence while overseeing the intelligence services, such presence does not interest Chengriha, who considers the ministry to be a political and administrative institution rather than a military one.

READ MORE Algeria: How President Tebboune is dismantling Gaïd Salah’s military networks

On the other hand, Chengriha has not been in favour of the opening of  services which, since the death of Gaïd Salah, are increasingly under the control of the president and his security adviser, General Haj Redouane. General Major Bouzit, head boss of the external services, has become particularly active in the president’s entourage.

Additionally, the army also has its own idea on the reform of non-intervention and wants to put it forward.

Although it recognises that the country’s security is not limited to border control, it fears that the constitutional review led by the president could lead it to engage in external operations that could be synonymous with meddling or occupation.

The mention of “peace restoration” missions, which the Army finds too vague, was present in the first draft of the constitutional revision. It has since been withdrawn.

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