Algeria’s most powerful figure, the army’s chief Ahmed Gaid Salah - who led this year the response to the mass popular anti-government protests - died suddenly Monday after a heart attack, Algerian state media reported.
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The lieutenant-general, 79, had become the most visible figure in what Algerians call “Le Pouvoir” (the “power”) to describe the elite who secretly and "in reality" rules the country.
He also became the country’s de-facto leader after he made a televised speech in April urging for decades-long President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down, prompting the latter to resign that same day.
After that, and to restore normal order in the major oil and gas exporter country, his strategy consisted of replacing Bouteflika and his allies while keeping the essential structure of power intact and not trying to stop the protests, hoping the demonstrators will tire and end by themselves.
However that did not happen and thousands of people continued to take to the streets, demanding a drastic change to the political system, refusing to be just satisfied by Bouteflika’s resignation and the arrest of several of his allies on corruption charges.
One of the main demands of the leaderless protest movement has been that the army also steps away from its central political role, which they had been holding since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962.
“A civilian state, not a military state” was a slogan often chanted by demonstrators.
In this sense, protesters throughout the year increasingly called for Gaid Salah himself to resign, especially after he played a key role in pushing for an election in December to replace Bouteflika. A poll that was opposed by the civilian protest movement who regarded it as illegitimate as all the candidates were close to the former president.
Though the protesters wanted Gaid Salah to step down and the army to leave politics, some prominent figures in the movement praised the military’s decision not to violently crush their demonstrations.
“(Gaid Salah) kept his promise to save the blood of Algerians during a tough period,” Islam Benatia, a prominent figure in the protest movement, said on Facebook.
Following Gaid Salah’s passing away, the new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, quickly named the head of the land forces, General Said Chengriha, as the new acting chief of staff of the armed forces.
The protest movement is still debating its response to Tebboune’s offer of dialogue. It rejected his election through a vote in which figures showed only 40 percent of voters participated.
Tebboune presents himself as independent, however, many protesters say he is a "puppet" for the military. After his televised swearing-in last week he immediately embraced Gaid Salah and awarded him an order of merit.
“The army hierarchy is unified and it will move on after Gaid Salah as it did before him. Algeria’s army is a single bloc, not under the influence of one general but with consensus as to its engine,” said a retired general who asked not to be named.
Gaid Salah was born on January 13, 1940, in the eastern Batna province. He participated in the war of independence against the French colonial rule and became the head of Algeria’s land forces in 1994, early in the civil war between the state and Islamist insurgents that killed 200,000 people.
Bouteflika appointed him army chief a decade later. In the past 15 years, he strengthened the military’s central role within the ruling elite.