Algeria army in spotlight as North African nation faces popular uprising
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s days seemed numbered Wednesday, as the country’s ruling party and top labor union joined cascading calls for the ailing 82-year-old leader to resign.
But the biggest catalyst may have come the day before, when the head of Algeria’s powerful armed forces, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, demanded that a constitutional process be set in motion to determine whether Bouteflika, rarely seen in public and confined to a wheelchair since a 2013 stroke, is unfit for office.
As with the 2011 revolution in neighboring Tunisia, the military is again in the spotlight during this current popular uprising in vast, oil-rich Algeria. Until now, it has largely remained on the sidelines of the monthlong uprising that has drawn hundreds of thousands to the streets. The mass protests forced Bouteflika to renounce a fifth term in office earlier this month, but left him in power for an indefinite transition period.
In Tunisia, demonstrators hailed the army as a hero for siding with the street and supporting the democratic transition of the first Arab Spring uprising. The role of Algeria’s armed forces may be far more pivotal, analysts say, in determining whether it realizes a similarly trajectory, or tips into turmoil.
In both cases, history has helped to shape the roles of both institutions. Tunisia’s armed forces had little stake in supporting the regime of autocratic ex-president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, a former officer who came to power in a peaceful coup and then made sure the military stayed weak, analysts say.
By contrast, Algeria’s army has been a powerful player since independence, a force deeply entrenched in the political system with a mixed reputation in the eyes of ordinary Algerians, as both longtime protector of the nation but also of the current, discredited regime.
“Algeria is an army that has a state,” said International Crisis Group North Africa analyst Michel Ayari. “Tunisia is a state with an army.”
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