Hours before Abdelaziz Bouteflika bowed to weeks of popular protests by ceding power on April 2, Gaid Salah, the country’s powerful army chief and a long-time loyalist of the president, launched into a blistering tirade against his former ally and the entourage surrounding him.
Calling for Bouteflika’s immediate removal and echoing the demonstrators’ chants, the general issued a strongly worded statement condemning “the gang that had seized control of” Algerians’ destiny, in a direct reference to the president’s inner circle, including elite cronies benefitting from the decades-long status quo.
A little over a week later, in his first comments after Algeria entered a new political era with the confirmation of Abdelkader Bensalah as interim president, Salah had a similar message.
“The army will meet the people’s demands,” he told military personnel at a base on Wednesday, once again denouncing the corrupt “gang” running the country.
Protesters have been using the term to describe the ruling elite, including politicians, oligarchs, intelligence officials and other close associates of Bouteflika, who has rarely been seen in public after a stroke in 2013 rendered him nearly incapacitated.
Salah said he expects those who profited under the former president to be prosecuted.
“The judiciary has recovered its prerogative and can work freely,” he said, calling for the reopening of a corruption case involving the awarding of contracts at Sonatrach, Algeria’s oil and gas giant.
The comments marked the latest public statement by Salah during Algeria’s weeks-long political turmoil – late last month, a week before Bouteflika’s resignation, the general had called for the implementation of a constitutional article that would declare the office of the presidency vacant on health grounds.
Salah’s public desertion of Bouteflika has earned him popularity among some parts of Algerian society – even as others have been demanding his departure, pointing to the fact that he served as Bouteflika’s army chief of staff since 2004 and as deputy defence minister since 2013.
In 2008, a leaked cable by US Ambassador to Algiers Rob Ford described Salah as “perhaps the most corrupt official in the military apparatus”.
Algeria’s upheaval began in late February when Bouteflika announced his intention to seek a fifth term in office.
The move triggered mass rallies against him, which eventually forced him to backtrack on his bid, while also postponing elections planned for April 18. Bouteflika said he would remain in office to oversee a transition that would include drafting a new constitution.
The moves failed to appease protesters, who continued taking to the streets en masse, demanding a total political overhaul.
Meanwhile, the confirmation of Bensalah, a seasoned member of the political order, as acting head of state left demonstrators unsatisfied. On Tuesday, thousands of students took to the streets of the capital, Algiers, to denounce his appointment, prompting security forces to deploy pepper spray and water cannon in a bid to break up the crowd.
For his part, Bensalah vowed to organise free elections within his 90-day tenure and said he hoped they would result in a president committed to building a new Algeria.
The 76-year-old, who is not eligible to run for the office, also announced plans for the immediate creation of a “sovereign” body, with the help of the political class and civil society, to help prepare the required conditions for “honest and transparent” polls.
Salah on Wednesday backed Bensalah’s announcement, signalling that the armed forces would protect Algeria’s institutions.
“It is unreasonable to manage the transition period without the institutions,” Salah said, warning that such a scenario “could compromise all that has been achieved to this day since independence” from France in 1962.