Army Chief pulls Military out of Power games

Army Chief pulls Military out of Power games

Algeria Interface, July 18, 2002

In an unprecedented press conference army chief-of-staff Mohamed Lamari asserted that the army was a stranger to politics, so antagonising the shadowy junta of former generals who many believe hold the reins of power.

Algiers, 18/07/02- On July 2nd the Algerian army supremo, major general Mohamed Lamari, gave his first ever televised press conference, a move that has prompted much speculation among Algerians and Algeria watchers. Exactly what is behind Lamari’s decision to step into the media spotlight is open to interpretation in a country notorious for the opaqueness of its political life.

What has emerged is that the shadowy « decision-makers » are not at all pleased. The decision-makers are a shadowy junta of former generals who took power in 1992. Though no longer technically in the army they hold the reins of political and military power.

The decision-makers are generals Khaled Nezzar and Larbi Belkheir, intelligence chiefs Mohamed Médiène and Smain Lamari, plus two of Bouteflika’s aides, Benabbes Gheziel (former gendarmerie chief) and general Mohamed Touati. It was in 1992 that they came together in the junta that operated on a collegial basis.

Military the last to know
Lamari’s press conference angered them, according to one close observer of the Algerian military, because he asserted himself as army chief. He was a totally committed military man who had had enough of the army being blamed for everything. He had spoken out because he was anxious to pull the army out of the political power games in which it has been a player since 1992. By criticising Bouteflika’s record he sent out the message that the army had nothing to do with it, adding that « the military institution was the last to be informed of economic reforms ».

This last phrase was also aimed at the decision-makers.

To drive home his sincerity Mohamed Lamari nevertheless acknowledged that the army had interfered in politics. But only because it had to – in 1992 when it cancelled the elections the FIS was poised to win. Today, however, « its only mission was the one that set out in the constitution, no more, no less ».

He spoke flanked by army top brass whose presence reinforced his claims that the army stood aloof from political power struggles. He summed up his position with the statement, « we opened a breach in 1992 and closed it in 1999 ». There was also a subtext to the statement meant for the « decision-makers », namely that they had no hold over the army.

Army not involved in wheeling and dealing
Mohamed Lamari recalled that in 1992 he had said that force could not be the only solution to the problem and that a comprehensive answer had to be found. At the time Khaled Nezzar and Larbi Belkheir respectively defence and interior ministers had backed an all-out military onslaught against Islamist insurgents.

They regularly met in conclaves to settle questions of political power. One example was in 1994 when they met to decide which president should succeed the High Committee of State (the designated body that ran Algeria from the coup d’état in 1992 to 1995). They backed general Liamine Zeroual who duly became president in 1995.

Again in 1999 Bouteflika’s candidacy was the work of Larbi Belkheir and Mohamed Touati, both of whom are now presidential advisors. Generals Benabes Gheziel, Smain Lamari and Khaled Nezzar all lent their backing.

That the army itself had no part in such wheeling and dealing was the thrust of Lamari’s statement.

Anonymous anger
The decision makers made known their anger in an unsigned article on the front page of the weekly « Les Débats ». Entitled « In whose name are you speaking Mr Lamari » the piece denied Lamari all right to speak on behalf of the army of which he is, nonetheless, the official chief.

The decision-makers, who no longer belong to the army, or merely conserve their former rank, nevertheless intend to maintain their hold on it through intelligence chiefs general Smain Lamari and Toufik Mediène.

But there again Lamari had stressed the intelligence services came under his command – officially true but so politically sensitive that the progovernment newspapers censured it.

In short Lamari’s press conference was designed to set the record straight and put the army on a footing in line with the constitution and its role as a public institution. Such a move could not fail to anger the shadowy (now civilian) junta that pulls the strings of power.

The anonymous piece in Les Débats sounded a note of alarm that the status quo was being upset – a worried nudge in the direction of the secret police. It is true that if the army is to resume a normal role in the secret services will have to agree. Objectively, said a former colonel, its as much in their interest as the army’s to get out of the mire that in which they have been bogged down for the last decade. Their survival is at stake.

Menouar Zeid