Algeria‘s army chief has warned protesters against calling for a “civilian, and not military, state”, denouncing the demand as being marshalled by “traitors”.
“These are poisonous ideas that have been dictated to them [protesters] by circles hostile to Algeria and to its constitutional institutions,” Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah said during a speech in the capital Algiers on Wednesday.
The 79-year-old’s comments came just days after the country’s independence day celebrations during which tens of thousands of protesters marched for a 20th consecutive week to demand that associates of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika be removed.
A veteran of the war of independence, Bouteflika’s decision in February to run for a fifth consecutive term despite his failing health set off a wave of unprecedented street protests against the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) that has been in power since 1962.
Gaid Salah, once seen as a member of Bouteflika’s inner circle and initially a supporter of the president’s re-election bid, turned against the ailing leader in late March and demanded his resignation.
After Bouteflika stepped down on April 2. and in an effort to appease demonstrators, Gaid Salah vowed to crack down on government officials and prominent businessmen suspected of corruption.
On Wednesday, Gaid Salah reaffirmed his support for interim President Abdelkader Bensalah’s offer to hold a national dialogue conference as a way out of the current political crisis.
“We consider presidential elections to be key to building a strong state … a state that the army command is resolved to achieving despite the obstacles it has faced,” said Gaid Salah.
Last week, Bensalah offered to host “neutral” talks, which neither the government nor the military would take part in, to help pave the way for polls.
Activists and opposition leaders say they cannot compete in the elections with remnants of the old guard still in power, most markedly Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui and Bensalah.
“Gaid Salah represents the voice of the military junta that has historically ruled the country,” said Algerian analyst Zine Labidine Ghebouli.
“This junta went back to its old, repressive methods once it felt its political privileges were threatened, including intimidation” added Ghebouli, in reference to the arrest of several of Gaid Salah’s critics, including war veteran Lakhdar Bouregaa.
“They are pushing for elections to regenerate the civilian facade and it is now clear that they won’t be making any further concessions.
Last month, Gaid Salah branded those who opposed the military as enemies of the country after protesters rejected the army’s proposed roadmap, which involved abiding by the current constitution and provisionally maintaining Bouteflika loyalists.
An already delayed vote, scheduled for July 4, was cancelled after the only two candidacies submitted were rejected.
Bensalah’s 90-day interim presidency came to an end on Tuesday. A new date for the election has yet to be announced.