Algeria’s Changes at the Top Cause Uncertainty

Algeria’s Changes at the Top Cause Uncertainty

In late July Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika called for the dismissal of three senior security officials. Without a formal announcement, many are now questioning the reasons behind the decision.

On July 24, Algeria’s media reported that three generals responsible for internal security, presidential security, as well as the head of the Republican Guard would be replaced. No official reason was given, but local media has suggested that it was due to “negligence” and “errors”. The men in question include Major General Abdelhamid Bendaoud who directed the internal security or counter-espionage service, known as the DSI, Major General Ahmed Moulay Meliani who headed the Republic Guard and General Djamel Medjdoub the head of presidential security.

What makes Bouteflika´s decision unprecedented is that in 16 years as head of state, he has never sacked this many senior military officials at once. According to a journalist from the daily newspaper El Watan, within Algeria´s military hierarchy, the men assumed the second-highest positions. The new head of the DSI was announced as Colonel Abdelaziz. The previous head of Algeria´s fifth military region, General Ben Ali Ben Ali will be in charge of the Republican Guard and General Nasser Habchi will now oversee Bouteflika´s personal security.

Behind the headlines

Since the news broke, Algeria’s media has been left to speculate over whether the men were removed from their post due to disciplinary actions or retirements. Either way, since all the men were both indirectly and directly responsible for protecting the president, it did not help that during Eid armed men succeeded to scale the walls of the presidential residence of Zeralda. A firefight broke out between the intruders and members of the Republican Guard. In the same period, on July 16, an army patrol was ambushed by members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the province of Ain Defla and 9 soldiers were killed.

In recent years, criticism of the military´s failures has been reported among senior government officials. In February 2014, the secretary general of the ruling FLN party, Amar Saadani, criticised the actions of the shadowy but effective intelligence organisation, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), headed by General Mohamed Mediene, who is rarely seen in public. He is known as one of the world´s longest-serving intelligence chiefs.

In 2013, the DRS was criticised for its handling of the hostage crisis at the gas installation operated by BP, Sonatrach and Statoil in In Amenas when dozens of foreign workers were killed. Prior to directing the DSI, General Bendaoud spent 10 years in Paris as the DRS attaché. Some reports have claimed that both Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and Algeria´s chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah never wanted Bendaoud to head the Directorate for Internal Security.

The military and the president

Since Algeria’s independence from France, the military has played an important role in Algeria’s civil affairs. It was a military coup, which ended Ahmed Ben Bella´s presidency in 1965. His replacement was the Soviet-leaning Colonel Houari Boumedienne. Later in the 1980s, according to Oxford scholar Dr. Michael J. Willis, President Chadli Benjedid encouraged the military and promoted officers to the ranks of general. Later in January 1992, the second round of general elections was cancelled and the military set up the Higher Security Council with a figurehead leader. This was after it was clear the Islamist party or the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) was primed to win.

In 1999 when President Bouteflika took office, his candidacy was pre-approved by the military due to his willingness to shield them from scrutiny for their alleged role in atrocities carried out during the dark decade of the 1990s. This was formalised through the 2006 Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. However, in the past few years Bouteflika has taken steps to curtail the role of the military and in particular those connected to the DRS.

It is possible that Bouteflika wishes to have individuals close to him who share his interests. On July 4, he expressed his determination to complete his fourth five-year term in office. He officially holds the position of commander-in-chief and defence minister, but the question on everyone’s mind is who will be his successor. One strategy for Bouteflika could be to outmaneuver and sideline those military officials who may have designs on the presidency. How the president and his supporters manage affairs in the coming months, could provide some significant indicators.

About Author

Emily Boulter

Emily Boulter is a Rotterdam-based writer, who is also the creator of the current affairs blog “From Brussels to Beirut”. Previously, she worked as an assistant for the vice-chair of the foreign affairs committee in the European Parliament.