ALGIERS (Reuters) – Thousands of Algerians gathered on Wednesday for the funeral procession of the country’s powerful army chief, who fought for independence from France as a young man and this year became the country’s de facto leader.
Lieutenant general Ahmed Gaed Salah died suddenly of a heart attack on Monday aged 79, having determined the secretive state’s response to mass protests throughout this year calling for a wholesale change of the ruling elite.
“He did the right thing when he secured the millions who marched in the past 10 months demanding change,” said Abdesselam Selami, 52, a telecoms worker speaking to Reuters by phone from the capital’s Palais de Peuple. “Zero killed.”
As the protests reached their peak in April, Gaed Salah called for the veteran president, his longtime ally Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to step down, prompting his resignation soon after.
Although an interim president was appointed, Gaed Salah was widely seen as holding the reins. He did not attempt to crush the peaceful protests with violence, but many demonstrators saw him as the main obstacle in their path.
He pushed for an election to replace Bouteflika, a vote the protesters regarded as a charade as the real power would remain with the army.
They chanted “A civilian state, not a military state” and, as the protest wore on, demanded the resignation of Gaed Salah.
After Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected president, he brought Gaed Salah onto the stage where he was sworn in before embracing him and presenting him with an order of merit.
The old general died four days later and Tebboune swiftly appointed Said Chengriha, head of the land forces and at 74 of the same generation as Gaed Salah, to replace him.
Chengriha, like Gaed Salah and most of Algeria’s other rulers since independence, is a veteran of the guerrilla war against French rule.
Though protesters have demanded that the old guard of rulers quit power, they have also throughout their demonstrations painted themselves as the successors to the generation which won freedom for Algeria.
Gaed Salah’s body will be driven through the center of Algiers and buried in a main graveyard after Wednesday’s noon prayer.
Reporting by Lamine Chikhi, writing by Angus McDowall, editing by Ed Osmond