ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria’s army chief said on Tuesday the military was considering all options to resolve the national political crisis and warned “time is running out”, after weeks of anti-government protests.
Lieutenant-General Ahmed Gaed Salah’s remarks were the strongest indication yet that the military, which has said it supports a transition period after the April 2 resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is losing patience.
In a speech broadcast on state television, Salah, speaking at a military base in the central town of Ouargla, urged protesters who have been gathering since Feb. 22 to avoid violence.
“All options are open in the pursuit of overcoming the different difficulties and finding a solution to the crisis as soon as possible, in a way that serves our nation’s interests without regard to individual interests,” he said.
Salah did not specify what measures the army could take. But he said: “We have no ambition but to protect our nation.”The army patiently monitored the mostly peaceful protests that sometimes swelled to hundreds of thousands of people.
But Salah intervened when Bouteflika sought to extend his fourth term, declaring him unfit for office in a bid to avoid prolonged turmoil.
Parliament named an interim president and a July 4 election date was set in a transition the army said it would support.
Bouteflika’s departure failed to placate many Algerians who want to topple the old guard and its associates. Protesters want a clean break with the ruling elite - veterans of the war of independence against France, the ruling party and oligarchs - and sweeping democratic reforms.
Analysts say the army has been acting within the framework of the constitution to avoid giving any impression of a coup.
In the early 1990s, the military canceled an election Islamists were poised to win, triggering a civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people and ravaged Algeria.
“The army’s leadership does not take any decision that does not serve the country and the people,” said Salah, adding that some parties were not happy with the “peaceful protests”.
Salah accused a former intelligence chief of trying to undermine the transition, in a clear reference to General Mohamed Mediene, a spy chief dubbed “Algeria’s God” because many saw him as the real authority.
“I send to this person a final warning,” said Salah.
“And in case he persists in his actions, firm legal measures will be taken against him.”
Bouteflika fired Mediene in 2015 in an attempt to weaken the intelligence services, but he is still seen as one of the most powerful figures in Algeria.
Bouteflika, rarely seen in public since a stroke in 2013, also worked for years to ease the generals’ clout and make the presidency more powerful by sacking dozens of top officers.
But the army is still the most powerful institution in Algeria. It has swayed politics from the shadows for decades and is expected to help guide the transition process.
Earlier on Tuesday, the chairman of the Constitutional Council, Tayib Belaiz, quit his post, state news agency APS said. That followed calls for his resignation by protesters who say he is part of a ruling elite they want abolished.
Belaiz submitted his resignation to interim President Abdelkader Bensalah, APS reported, citing a statement from the council. He was replaced by Kamel Fenich, a little-known judge and member of the council, state TV said.
Thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of Algiers and in cities across the country on Tuesday, calling for radical change in the eighth week of mass protests.
Belaiz’s departure could herald that of other senior political figures who protesters want removed.
These include Bensalah, who was appointed interim president after Salah managed Bouteflika’s exit.
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry