Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika with Army Chief of Staff General Ahmad Gaed Salah last June. Salah is pushing to have Bouteflika declared too ill to serve. Image Credit: REUTERS

Algiers: The army has thrust itself into the kingmaker role in Algeria’s crisis, but as it works backstage to remove an ailing president and broker calls from the street for democracy, it will be careful to shore up its own immense political clout.

For more than a month, Algerians have marched to unseat not only President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika but also the whole ruling elite—veterans of an independence war against France, plus their allies in the army, business, legislature and unions.

Some Algerians wonder whether the military, whose expertise lies in producing political continuity rather than change, is the institution to manage the radical political and economic overhaul many Algerians are calling for.

But whatever new system ally eventually emerges from the upheaval, the army is signalling it wants to retain the decisive role in national affairs it has had since independence in 1962.

Its influence grows more evident by the day.

With Bouteflika resisting immense popular pressure to step down immediately, the army chief stepped in to break the impasse on March 22 by calling on the constitutional council to declare the veteran head of state—82 and ailing—unfit to rule.

The move, placing a large question mark over Bouteflika’s own plan to stay on temporarily to oversee his own succession, sent a shockwave through the political establishment.

In the days that followed, two leading political parties and the country’s biggest labour union—longtime establishment supporters of the president—echoed the army’s call.

“The game is between the presidency and the demonstrators.

And the referee is the army. So you can exclude a player, but you cannot exclude the referee,” said a retired army general.

The ideal scenario for the army, former generals say, would be a compromise candidate for president who would meet some demands of the protesters while enabling the generals to help shape the future.

Political overhaul

“I can imagine more concessions from the army, including accepting candidates from the demonstrators to handle the transition,” said a retired military intelligence officer.

So far, the reaction to the army’s intervention from protest leaders—some of whom want a complete political revamp removing any army influence in politics—has been a mixture of caution and pragmatism.

“The military showed that it was with the people during the protests,” lawyer and activist Moustafa Bouchachi, the most prominent figure to emerge from the protests, told Reuters.

“I hope it will continue to be with the people, and yes I hope it will help secure a transition.”

Like all protesters, he wants a new generation of leaders to overhaul the country’s stagnant politics and jump-start a limping economy that Algerians say is riven with cronyism.

But he says it is too early to discuss who will succeed Bouteflika.

Possible contenders

Some of those who are prepared to speculate see opposition politician Ahmad Benbitour as a possible contender.

He resigned as prime minister under Bouteflika due to disagreements over the economic dominance of the ruling elite and lack of transparency.

Other names include former communication minister Abdul Aziz Rahabi and former president and army general Liamine Zeroual.

But whoever becomes caretaker president will have to be acceptable to the generals.

While Algeria’s local and parliamentary elections can be genuine contests, albeit open only to parties approved by the authorities, presidential elections are tightly controlled and the army’s preferred candidate in effect is guaranteed to win.

Emergency meeting called

Algeria’s army chief summoned top military brass for an emergency meeting Saturday as he pushes for declaring Bouteflika unfit for office.

Military chief of staff Ahmad Gaid Salah claimed Saturday that unnamed figures were plotting against the military, as tensions mount in Algeria’s political crisis.

In a statement and remarks carried on Algerian television, Salah defended his proposal to launch a constitutional process to have Bouteflika declared too ill to serve.

Salah reiterated his proposal to activate Article 102 of the Algerian Constitution, under which the Constitutional Council could determine Bouteflika is too sick to rule and ask Parliament to approve.

The army chief also proposed to activate other constitutional articles in response to protesters’ demands.

He dismissed allegations that his proposal amounted to an attempted coup d’etat, insisting he was not seeking power himself but looking for a legal way out of the crisis.

Salah claimed a “secret meeting” was being held Saturday aimed at “leading a virulent campaign via different media and social networks against the army.”

Algerian media carried conflicting reports about who attended the secret meeting.

Algerians took to the streets by the millions Friday for the sixth straight week of nationwide protests.

The protests have turned the tables on the elite power structure, but it is unclear what lies ahead.