Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has dismissed generals to tighten his grip on power ahead of him possibly seeking re-election next year to diminish the power of the military, analysts and diplomats said.
Two weeks ago, Bouteflika (81) sacked two more generals, bringing the number of dismissed top military figures to about a dozen in the last few months.
The firings point to an accelerating security reform launched several years ago to transform Algeria’s politically oriented military into a more professional body, political sources told Reuters.
Easing the grip of an army dominating the OPEC oil producer since the 1954-1962 independence war with France will take time.
The first results can be seen — dismissals that once caused tremors in the secretive North African country now seem routine.
“Generals used to sack, not be sacked,” said a retired intelligence officer, asking like others not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“Decisions used to be taken at Tagarins, now they are taken at Zeralda,” he added.
Tagarins is the location of the defence ministry in central Algiers, while Bouteflika works in the coastal village of Zeralda, west of the capital.
When Bouteflika was first elected in 1999, the army and intelligence services were seen as the real holders of power.
Now, amid speculation he will bow to calls from the ruling party to run for a possible fifth term in presidential elections in 2019 despite health concerns, Bouteflika is concentrating power in his inner non-military circle.
Key players now are his youngest brother Said Bouteflika, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and Interior Minister Nouredine Bedoui.
Recent sackings include four regional commanders, the head of military intelligence and generals at the defence ministry, as well as police chief and army officer Abdelghani Hamel.
Before this year’s cull, Bouteflika had sacked the top intelligence chief, Mohamed Mediene, and tens of senior generals in the intelligence services in 2015.
He replaced the main intelligence agency DRS with a new body CSS led by a retired general, Athmane Tartag. It reports to the presidency, not to military like before.
“It is a long process, the goal is to make the military more professional and away from politics,” said Arslan Chikhaoui, chairman of a consultancy firm.
Changes in Algeria are closely watched as the country is a key ally in the Western fight against jihadism in the region and a top energy supplier to Europe.
If the shift away from the army continues, this might help investors tired of visa or project applications becoming stuck in a bureaucracy dominated by military and security figures suspicious of foreigners.
“That will be welcome for foreign direct investors who will see the step as further normalisation of the decision making process in government,” said Geoff Porter, head of North Africa Risk Consulting.
Algeria wants to drum up investment for its oil and gas sector to end years of stalling output.
In March Bouteflika hired a US-trained CEO to revamp state firm Sonatrach which is rebuilding ties with oil majors who lost interest in Algeria due to red tape, disputes and tough terms.
The biggest risk remains the health of Bouteflika rarely seen in public since a stroke in 2013 confined him to a wheel chair. A reminder of this was a trip last week to Switzerland to conduct what the presidency described as routine tests.