Top Algerian Military Commanders Being Purged Ahead of Presidential Election

A number of top Algerian military commanders, including the heads of the air force and the army, have been dismissed within the past week.

In a series of moves, at least a dozen top officers have been replaced since June.

Analysts say that a core of military officers under the deputy defense minister are consolidating their power in the lead up to presidential elections next spring, which ailing outgoing President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika is expected to win.

Algerian state TV announced the ouster of a number of top military commanders earlier this week, including the country's air force chief and the army's head of ground operations. One top officer fled to Paris with his family through Algiers International Airport, prompting the firing of top airport security personnel.

A former Algerian diplomat, Mohammed Zeytout, told an Egyptian TV station the firings were part of an "extremely ugly power struggle" in which "top generals are firing, deposing or arresting each other, while some are trying to flee the country." Former military officers have had their passports canceled and are not being allowed to travel.

Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, termed the purges a "pre-emptive coup," while Mohammed Zeytout called them "unprecedented except for countries that have undergone regime change or a coup."

Bouteflika is running for a fifth term this coming spring, despite poor health, and Khashan says those who support him are using him as a figurehead behind which to govern.

"There is an agreement among the power elite in Algeria to keep Abdel Aziz Bouteflika in office because they run the country since he is incapacitated and they hide behind him and that gives them a sense of legitimacy," Khashan said. "The fear is that if Bouteflika is gone, Algeria would be gravely destabilized."

Khashan points out that Army Chief of Staff Gaid Salah, who appears to be calling the shots, has been using corruption as a pretext to get rid of possible rivals. "Corruption," he said "is nothing new in Algeria. It is a way of life."

France's influential Le Monde newspaper reported that top army officers have been accused of "running up to 30 private companies, each," both in their own names and in the names of family members.

Mohammed Bashoush, who teaches political science at the University of Algiers, told Al Hurra TV he thinks the current turmoil in Algeria is nevertheless part of an agreement between civilian and military leaders.

Bashoush said it is obvious the changes taking place in the military are directly related to preparations for the upcoming presidential elections, and despite the conflict between opposing sides, both the political and military wings of the presidency have come to a consensus over a road map to follow.

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia told a press conference earlier this week, during the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that despite turmoil, Algeria has a free press and everyone is allowed to speak out.

Ouyahia said freedom of expression is an integral part of the Algerian press and its 160 newspapers, and no one is penalized for what they write about the president, the prime minister or the institutions of state.

But former diplomat Zeytout was less sanguine.

"President Bouteflika is sick and his health is miserable. He hasn't addressed the people in 6 years and 4 months," Zeytout said. "No one wants to talk about it, but the real power center is Army Chief of Staff Gaid Salah, who runs the country surrounded by 30 other generals."

Source: Voice of America