PARIS — Algeria’s de facto ruler, Gen. Ahmed Gaïd Salah, who this year managed the ouster of one president and the ascent of another amid deep civil unrest, died on Monday, according to the state news agency and Algerian press reports.
General Gaïd Salah’s unexpected death at 79 — his official age, though he was most likely older — less than two weeks after the army’s favored candidate was elected president, creates a power vacuum in the vast North African nation, a major oil and gas producer.
A survivor from the generation that led Algeria to independence from France in the early 1960s, General Gaïd Salah was the man who increasingly blocked the demands of the popular protest movement that has rocked the country’s politics since last February.
As chief of staff, General Gaïd Salah orchestrated a hardening crackdown on the movement, imposed a presidential election that the protesters rejected, and demanded, in regular if stiff televised speeches to other army officers, that the demonstrators back off.
The movement has rejected the newly elected president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, as a mere figurehead, put in place to carry out the general’s wishes.
Algerian news media said that General Gaïd Salah died of a heart attack Monday morning in an Algiers military hospital.
Earlier this year, he appeared to be bidding for the protest movement’s allegiance, forcing out in April the longtime president he had steadfastly backed, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, by having him declared unfit for office. He was also behind the arrests of numerous businessmen associated with Mr. Bouteflika, as well as several of his prime ministers, and Saïd Bouteflika, the former president’s powerful brother.
“Gaïd Salah was essentially known because of Bouteflika,” said Benjamin Stora, a leading historian of Algeria. “He owed his career to Bouteflika. He supported him until the end, and he was the last to say he had to go.”
But the protest movement, known as the Hirak, demanded more: the departure of General Gaïd Salah himself, and everyone associated with the military-political elite, which Algerians call the System, that has ruled the country since independence in 1962. This the general refused.
It is unclear how much of a free hand Mr. Tebboune, the new president, will have in running the country, with the military leaders in General Gaïd Salah’s circle still in the background. The “red line” the president cannot cross, according to Mr. Stora, is “the army’s role in the economy,” including the generous funding it receives, making it the top arms buyer in Africa.
General Gaïd Salah began his military career as a teenager in the national liberation army fighting the French. He later trained at a Soviet military academy and rose through the ranks of the Algerian army, becoming head of ground forces in Algeria’s bloody 1990s civil war with the Islamists.
He had formed a strong alliance with Mr. Bouteflika in the early 2000s, ever since the Algerian president saved him from a forced early retirement. As Mr. Bouteflika’s vice-minister of defense, he helped his benefactor dismantle the country’s powerful internal security services.
For years, General Gaïd Salah dutifully stood in the shadows, ready to back Mr. Bouteflika but never stealing the limelight. And the government showered cash on him and his army from the country’s oil earnings.
“The death of General Gaïd Salah is a harsh blow to the System, which will be somewhat destabilized,” Nacer Djabi, a leading sociologist, said Monday in Algiers. “Obviously, his personality counted for a great deal in the way the situation was unfolding.”
“This was a man who had been able to break with the Bouteflika system, relying at first on the Hirak, and who also did a lot in the fight against corruption,” Mr. Djabi said. “For Algerians, he did some things that were scarcely believable, including the arrest of a number of important figures, but we’re just going to have to wait to see what the real impact will be.”
“But this death signals the disappearance of a whole political and military generation,” he added.
Others were more measured.
“Since there is now an elected president, I don’t think the general’s death will have a huge impact on the way the situation unfolds,” said Mohamed Hennad, a political scientist in Algiers. “And I don’t think the executive’s strategy will change that much.”
Still, it was the general’s name that the crowds shouted, with anger and derision, for months in Algiers, insisting that he leave the country’s governance to civilians. Whether that will now happen is an open question.
Hadjer Guenanfa contributed reporting from Algiers.
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