Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah, Algeria‘s powerful army chief, died at a military hospital in the capital Algiers after suffering a heart attack on Monday.
The 79-year-old was thrust to the front of the national political scene after breaking with longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in late March amid nationwide anti-government protests.
Long considered an ally of Bouteflika, Gaid Salah – who initially backed the president’s controversial bid for a fifth term in office – gave in to demonstrators’ demands and called for the leader’s removal on account of his failing health.
But the septuagenarian’s ties to the political old guard and insistence on moving ahead with a presidential election denounced by demonstrators did not sit well with the protest movement, known as the Hirak, which has demanded a transition to civilian rule.
The military has throughout the country’s modern history played a key role in politics, either as an arbiter or a ruler.
After Bouteflika was forced out in April and Gaid Salah emerged as the country’s de facto leader, protesters turned their anger towards the army chief, accusing him of blocking the path to democracy.
Gaid Salah consistently maintained that a presidential election was the only way to break the country’s political deadlock. A vote was eventually held on December 12, with five of the ex-president’s associates competing in a race that saw former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune elected as the country’s new head of state.
Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a former Algerian diplomat turned political analyst, told Al Jazeera that Gaid Salah wasted a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to effect the change for which Algerians have long been clamouring.
“He could have ended the military’s domination of political life and empowered civilians but instead left the army in charge,” Zitout said. “This is a man who could have entered history from the front door but has instead exited by the back door and into the dustbin of history.”
Born in the eastern province of Batna on January 13, 1940, Gaid Salah – like many of his contemporaries – joined the Army of National Liberation, which in 1954 launched a war against the colonial power France.
Upon Algerian independence in 1962, he chose to remain in the army – rebranded as the People’s National Army – rising through the ranks to become head of the terrestrial forces in 1994 at the height of Algeria’s civil war.
His career as a major general appeared to be coming to end in 2003, after his name was submitted to the presidency as part of a list of officers approaching retirement.
Ever sceptical of the army high command, Bouteflika decided to ignore General Mohamed Lamari’s advice, his chief of staff at the time, and retained the Soviet-trained Gaid Salah.
When Lamari – who opposed Bouteflika’s bid for a second term in office in 2004 – resigned the same year, the president replaced him with Gaid Salah.
Alongside the appointment of Gaid Salah as army chief came a series of measures that seemed to suggest that powers were being transferred to civilians, including the restructure of Algeria’s DRS intelligence agency, headed by General Mohamed Mediene.
Gaid Salah’s loyalty to the president did not go unnoticed. In September 2013, just months after Bouteflika suffered a stroke that left him paralysed and unable to address his people, Gaid Salah was named deputy defence minister.
But the shifting power dynamics in early 2019, both in the street and within the president’s inner circle, prompted the general to act and relinquish his support for the ailing head of state.
Local media reported in late April that Said Bouteflika, the president’s younger brother who became increasingly powerful after the leader’s stroke, along with General Medine, was planning to replace Gaid Salah with a more pliable army chief and declare a state of emergency.
The two men were sentenced in September to 15 years in jail for plotting against the state and undermining the army.
Gaid Salah’s supporters said that in opposing the state of emergency, he clearly showed that he stood with the people. They pointed to the prosecution of several senior governments officials, including two former prime ministers, for corruption, as proof of the army chief’s good faith.
However, his detractors, many of whom have commended Gaid Salah for not resorting to force against demonstrators, said he went too far in his attempt to stabilise the country, as hundreds of protesters, artists, politicians and even a war veteran were detained on what activists described as trumped-up charges aimed at silencing critics.
Sharan Grewal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera that Gaid Salah’s demise could present an opportunity for the protest movement to press for concessions.
“The new acting chief of staff was only head of the land army for a year,” Grewal said, referring to General Said Chengriha. “He won’t have the legitimacy within the military that Gaid Salah commanded.”
“So, it is even less likely that he would be able to order the repression of the Hirak. With repression less likely, concessions become more likey.”
Grewal said this was also a chance for the newly elected President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to exert control over the military, especially since many in the army may wish to “withdraw from the limelight after they, and not just Gaid Salah, became the target of the protests over time.”
Zitout, the former diplomat, agreed that Tebboune could take advantage of the current situation to redeem himself in the eyes of Algerians, many of whom see him as the military’s preferred candidate.
“It’s an opportunity for Tebboune to go down in history and serve for a transitory period of a year or two after which he would hand over power to the people in accordance with Article 7 and 8 of the Constitution.”
“But if the military’s sway over politics continues, then it is also an opportunity for Algerians to show they will continue their struggle and that they will stay mobilised until their demands are met.”