Algiers: The death of Algeria’s powerful army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, who played a key role in the resignation of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has injected fresh drama into the Opec member’s simmering political crisis.
The 79-year-old Salah suffered a heart attack at 6am local time on Monday, Algerian state media reported.
Three days of mourning were declared.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was elected this month in a controversial ballot Salah championed, described his death as a “cruel tragedy” and praised him as a hero.
With Bouteflika’s stepping down in April, Salah became the main target for protesters demanding a complete dismantling of the old regime and its backers.
Demonstrators rejected the December 12 presidential vote, and Salah’s death seems unlikely to trigger a significant shift in the North African nation where the army can flex the most muscle, according to analysts.
“Gaid Salah’s death does not change the power configuration in Algeria,” said Anthony Skinner, Middle East and North Africa director at Verisk Maplecroft, the Bath, England-based risk consultancy. “The military remains the most powerful institution in Algeria and Tebboune will still have to accommodate the interests of senior military officials.”
Algeria, a gas-rich country on Europe’s doorstep, has been rocked by unrest since early 2019, which was sparked by Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term.
There’s been no letup since his April resignation, with protesters keeping to the streets to demand the removal of “le pouvoir,” a military, government and business elite that’s ruled since independence from France in the 1960s.
The economic stakes are high for Algeria, where Tebboune beat four other regime insiders in a ballot that saw the country’s lowest-ever turnout.
For years the government relied on energy revenues to underwrite a subsidy system that kept the youth-majority population quiet. But the slump in crude prices ate into its foreign-currency reserves, forcing the government to consider breaking a long-standing taboo by turning to external borrowing.
Salah stepped into the limelight shortly before Bouteflika’s resignation, suggesting the president should be removed from office under an article in the constitution that allows for the impeachment of an incapacitated head of state.
That call was the strongest signal at the time that Bouteflika, who’d ruled Algeria for 20 years, had lost the army’s backing.
But whatever goodwill Salah secured quickly dissipated as demonstrators increasingly singled him out as the target of their chants and anger at regular Friday protests.
Tebboune appointed Said Chengriha as Salah’s successor, state TV reported.