Algeria’s powerful army chief has said the military will not back any candidate in a presidential election set for December to choose a successor to ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
“We affirm that only the people will pick the next president through ballot boxes, and the army will not support anyone,” a defence ministry statement quoted Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah as saying on Sunday.
Angry at unemployment, corruption and an elderly elite seen as out of touch with the young, Algerians have been relentless in taking to the streets since February this year.
The protests were initially against Bouteflika’s plans to remain in office, but later included removal of all remnants of a secretive political and military establishment that has dominated the country for decades.
Days after Bouteflika stepped down on April 2, speaker of the upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, was appointed as the interim president.
One of his first actions was to call presidential elections for July 4, but Algeria’s constitutional council scrapped the vote, citing lack of candidates.
Since then, the grassroots protest movement has been adamant that no election should take place in the country as long as Bouteflika-era officials, including Bensalah and Gaid Salah, remain in positions of power.
On Sunday, Gaid Salah accused the remnants of the old guard – who he claims to oppose – of trying to disrupt elections by “spreading propaganda” that the military would side with one of the candidates running for the presidency.
“The gang and its acolytes try to spread the idea that the army will support one of the candidates for the next presidential election,” he said. “This is a propaganda and its purpose is to disrupt the election.”
Gaid Salah, Algeria’s de facto strongman, also dubbed last week’s sentencing of Said Bouteflika, the former president’s brother, and ex-intelligence officers Mohamed Mediene and Bachir Tartag to 15 years in jail as a “just punishment”.
“The just punishment handed down to certain elements of the gang … [amount to] realising an urgent and legitimate claim of the people,” he said.
The three men alongside Workers Party leader Louisa Hanoune were accused of “conspiring against the army” and “the authority of the state”.
Many, however, fear these moves are part of a power struggle between the still-powerful government players rather than genuine efforts to reform the state.
Gaid Salah himself faces sustained calls to step down from the protesters, who continue to mobilise on the streets some six months after the president’s forced departure.