Algeria’s strongman Said Chengriha shows signs of internal weakness in rivalry with President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
At least six Algerian army officers were reportedly arrested this month for allegedly plotting against the chief of staff, Said Chengriha.
According to local sources, Chengriha, and not President Tebboune, is Algeria’s “real leader and Orchestrator of Cold War with Morocco. Throughout his military career and especially since becoming the most powerful figure of the Algerian politico-military establishment, Chengriha has long been known for his readiness to confront or blame Morocco. In one of his latest remarks against Morocco, General Chengriha accused the North African country of conspiring with Israel and a handful of “terrorist organizations” in Algeria to destabilize the Algerian regime while undermining the country’s security and interests.
On 23 December 2019, major general Saïd Chengriha became the interim army chief of staff of the People’s National Army (ANP) following the death of Ahmed Gaïd Salah. A political newcomer with frontline military experience, Chengriha has inherited an “unprecedented and difficult situation” marked by a popular protest movement of historic proportions.
Chengriha built up a reputation as a brutal, if not bloodthirsty, leader during the country’s “black decade”.
Chengriha was rumoured to replace Salah ever since a massive government shakeup was undertaken in August 2018 at the highest levels of Algeria’s military and security apparatus.
During this unprecedented purge, Chengriha was promoted to succeed General Lahcen Tafer as chief of ground forces.
Chief of General Staff Said Chengriha.
Promoted to the rank of major general in 2003 by ousted former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Chengriha was tasked with border control in southwest Algeria. However, he has never been involved in political decision-making.
Before taking office as the chief of the Algerian army, Chengriha worked as deputy commander of special operations in the 1990s.
Lieutenant general Ahmed Gaid Salah, former Algerian armed forces chief.
According to several specialised media, Colonel Omar Ould Zmirli and Lieutenant Colonel Tarik Amirat, a former intelligence agent close to the brother of the late ex-president, Said Bouteflika, are among those accused of organising a plot against the Algerian strongman.
The Ministry of Defence, in the hands of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, reacted immediately by announcing the dismissal of the head of the army’s Central Security Directorate (DCSA), General Sid Ali Ould Zmirli, the brother of one of the alleged coup plotting officers and one of Chengriha’s own protégés.
The Ministry dismissed the head of military intelligence without giving details and appointed in his place the veteran General Abdelaziz Nouiouet Chouiter, who retired four years ago. His return has been interpreted as part of plans to reorganise the military establishment, but the moves are not entirely clear.
On the one hand, the chief of staff and de facto ruler of Algeria is allegedly the target of a coup plot; on the other, he is losing one of his most trusted men in the armed forces for the same reason. Chengriha had appointed Sid Ali Ould Zmirli just two years ago, after he became chief of staff following the death of Ahmed Gaïd Salah, to take charge of the DCSA.
Sid Ali Ould Zmirli’s departure is reportedly linked to ongoing investigations into DCSA and foreign intelligence department (DGDSE) officials as a result of suspicions of disclosing state secrets and a plot against the army.
The fall of the Zmirli brothers could have direct consequences for Said Chengriha’s entourage, in particular his son, Chafik Chengriha. This commander trained in computer engineering has been living in Paris since 2020, where he is part of the military office of the Algerian Embassy. Colonel Omar Ould Zmirli, arrested in connection with the conspiracy, is in charge of his security.
Chengriha’s rise to Algeria’s top military post also serves as a way to reward him for being loyal to his predecessor. The two men knew each another well. Early in Chengriha’s military career, he was sent alongside Salah to the Sinai front during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He is a military oligarch who has always shown unwavering loyalty to the military leadership so as to prop up the system and its interests.
Originally from Aurès, a region in north-eastern Algeria that is home to the Berber Chaoui ethnic group, Chengriha gradually rose among the Algerian army’s ranks on the coattails of Salah. After attending the Soviet Voroshilov military academy in the 1970s, he worked his way up the ladder and was promoted from commander of a tank battalion in Béchar to head of an armoured division within the 4th military region, in Constantine.