Military leader Ahmed Gaïd Salah, the deputy minister of defense and Chief of Staff for the Algerian army, died on Monday following a heart attack, according to a statement from the presidency. Gaïd Salah was 79 years old.
His death comes less than two weeks after the election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the new Algerian president who replaced longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika after the aging and frail Bouteflika agreed to step aside in April.
Yet it also comes amid continued unrest in Algeria, which has spanned a year of sweeping change after Bouteflika ruled for 20 years. The thousands of protesters who began in opposition to a fifth Bouteflika term gathered momentum over months of weekly marches, and their “hirak” movement continues to call for democratic and economic reforms.
Gaïd Salah, widely viewed as the de facto leader of Algeria, was at the center of the country’s tensions. The same protesters who rejected Tebboune and other candidates for being too closely allied with Bouteflika and the National Liberation Front party to represent meaningful change, also reject the military leadership that has been a foundation of Algeria’s political system since independence.
Gaïd Salah was, in turn, hostile to the protest movement. Both he and interim leader Abdelkader Bensalah accused the protesters of threatening national security under pressure from “foreign interference,” and Gaïd Salah authorized Algerian security forces to crack down on the political opposition ahead of the December 12 election.
Algeria plans three days of mourning for Gaïd Salah, with a full week for members of the national army.