With the Department for Intelligence and Security (DRS) being dissolved, many observers wonder whether this is really the end for Algeria’s once all-powerful spy service, while others question the motivation for the government’s decision.
The return of sovereign power
SOURCE: The New Arab
24 January 2016
The overly powerful Algerian political police – the Department of Information and Security – has been marginalised without a hitch by an ageing, 78 year-old president.
Bouteflika is ill and physically weak, but has opened the door for the return of an all-powerful presidency, in the style of Houari Boumediene and Chadli Benjedid – Algeria’s second and third presidents.
Despite this, the country’s economic crisis and the leader’s fragility are stopping him going too far against the last bastion of the old regime.
On 13 September 2015, a presidential communique announced the early retirement of DRS head, General Mohamed Mediene, to be replaced by one of his former subordinates brought out of retirement, Major-General ‘Bachir’ Tartag.
The move was considered a major event in Algeria’s political landscape, and rightly so. The DRS is the successor of what was until 1990 called “military security”. This military security was itself born of the secret services of the FLN that fought against the French occupation and acted as the fearsome iron fist of the regime after gaining independence.
The authority of the DRS was renewed once more after 1992, in the heat of the battle against Islamist subversion.
Mohamed Mediene’s exit was did not come as a surprise, however. Aged 76, and the last of the so-called “janvieristes” officers – who, in January 1992, forced President Benjedid to abdicate and annulled the first round of the legislative election won by the Islamists – his time remaining in the post was clearly running out.
At the time, French Algerian researcher Amel Boubekeur described General Mediene’s dismissal as “business as usual”. She told The World Weekly: “Even with the departure of Mediene we will still have security forces that are non-civilian controlled. The real issues people are interested in, like economic redistribution, are still conducted in an unfair non-transparent way and, with or without Mediene, Algerian leaders have proven unable to plan for a sustainable future or build a real welfare state.”
Most telling was a series of decisions, taken in the two years preceding his dismissal, which had weakened him and saw the sweeping powers the DRS had once enjoyed pared down to just its core functions. These decisions amounted to a methodical stripping down of its influence, with a view to turning it into a structure primarily responsible for intelligence, without any military or political weight.
A ‘half-hearted’ president
The dismissal of Mohamed Mediene must be seen in the context of a long process begun by Abdelaziz Bouteflika on his election in 1999, when he planned to endow the presidency with the prestige of the old days. The past glories of the executive were wiped out between 1992 and 1999 due to the power wielded by the army – particularly the DRS – over daily political life.
From his very first mandate, he was hostile with the main “janvieriste” leaders who had first offered him the presidency in 1999, at a time when the international isolation of the country had become untenable, both diplomatically and economically.
Soon after coming to power, Bouteflika announced he would not be “a half-hearted president”, and, in 2004, he acted on his threat.
He dismissed the powerful Army Chief of Staff Mohamed Lamari, who had co-orchestrated with Mohamed Mediene the constitutional putsch in 1992 against Chadli Bendjedid – suspected of wanting to power-share with the Islamists of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
Lamari’s successor, Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaïd Salah – who still holds the post today – numbers among Bouteflika’s faithful allies, owing the president for his unexpected promotion at a time when he was nearing the end of his career.
Lamari’s departure was followed by the dismissals of other “janvieriste” officers who held key posts such as regional military commandants.
And so, even though he had originally been appointed to the role, Bouteflika knew how to make himself into a president in his own right. His three predecessors from 1992 (Mohamed Boudiaf, Ali Kafi and Liamine Zeroual) had been forced to share some of their powers, informally of course, with the generals – with the officers empowered by the army’s central position fighting armed Islamist groups.
And though today’s incumbent may be physically weak, the presidency remains the sole centre of political decision-making in Algeria.
This represents a return to the 1965-1992 period, during which, while consulting military officials on the main diplomatic and political issues of the day, the head of state exercised powers that reached across all domains, including defence.
Former high-ranking officials nominated by their peers, such as Houari Boumediene and Chadli Bendjedid, acted like true Napoleon Bonapartes – and while they may have arbitrated in the regime’s internal conflicts, they did not share their powers with any of the groups that constituted it.
Contrary to predictions of an embittered battle between the dejected “janvieristes”, marginalised by Bouteflika and jealous of his constitutional powers, the reinstatement of military leadership passed off without a hitch. The departure of Lamari in 2004 and that of Mediene in 2015 did not create any waves either.
In opposing his adversaries, the head of state doubtless called on the ambitions of young, high-ranking officers, keen to put a lid on a period of political instability, and all the more in favour of the professionalisation of the army, given the huge budgets available.
But above all, he succeeded in seizing the opportunity created by political instability, that is to say, the “janvieristes” had been weakened by their role in the dramas of the 1990s. And without Bouteflika’s protection, some would have found themselves before a court somewhere other than Algeria.
It was, for example, aboard an official aeroplane dispatched from Algiers that the retired General Major Khaled Nezzar, mastermind of the 1992 constitutional coup d’état was repatriated from France in April 2001, escaping legal proceedings in Switzerland after allegations of torture were brought against him.
However, the main reason for the lack of opposition to the presidential steamroller from the former “janvieristes” can be found in the political and economic context of the 2000s and the first half of the 2010s.
The Bouteflika era has been characterised on one hand, by a significant retreat of Islamist insurrection (demonstrated after the vote on “civil harmony” in 2000 and the surrender of thousands of jihadists) and on the other, by relative financial prosperity that only began to tail off in Summer 2014, with the global fall in hydrocarbons prices.
After an austere decade in the 1990s, this prosperity allowed a significant amount of public spending, with $500 billion splashed between 2004 and 2013. It also led to a better income for large sections of the population, and household spending tripled between 2000 and 2011.
To establish the necessary political leeway, President Bouteflika worked cleverly to ensure that the relative stability and the wealth now flowing into the state’s coffers appeared to have been of his own doing.
And it worked. It is however known that the Islamist surrender had been negotiated in 1997 during the short and turbulent rule of his predecessor, Liamine Zeroual, and that improved state revenues were due more to a favourable global environment than the forethought of successive prime ministers.
Algeria’s political system needs more than just ‘reform’
SOURCE: The Independent
24 January 2016
The story of Algeria is supposed to be about “reforms”. Most dictatorships are. Restrict presidential terms – unless, of course, the people demand the same old fogey as president yet again – and encourage the country’s minority to believe its status is respected. In Algeria’s case, Abdelaziz Bouteflika presents his country with a president – now in his fourth term of office – who has undergone so many medical operations (in Europe, of course) that he stares into the camera like a dead man.
There’s no point in being over-polite about it. When he was elected for a fourth time two years ago – after a lot of constitutional jiggery-pokery – Bouteflika was regarded by cartoonists and satirists in Algeria as a man already in his coffin. How could he impose such an indignity on brave Algeria, they asked? Could it not be ruled by a living man? Take a look at poor old Bouteflika’s recent photo portraits and you’ll see what they mean. He can hardly speak – and although his brain is active, his acolytes assure us, they find it hard to explain how they can be so certain of his competency if His Excellency the President cannot actually talk to them.
After suffering two bad strokes Abdelaziz Bouteflika has not conversed with anyone outside of a small clique centred around Said Bouteflika, the president’s brother, known as ‘Group 19’. According to The Independent’s John Hall, observers now speculate that there has been a ‘soft’ coup and that Group 19 now holds real power in Algeria.
The reforms which Bouteflika trundled out a couple of weeks ago must therefore be seen in context. A president who’s allowed only two terms of office, an enlarged parliament, an “independent” to run the elections and an official presidential imprimatur on Tamazight, the language of Algeria’s Berber minority – all these may look good on paper. But in a country which is still recovering from the death of 250,000 of its citizens and soldiers in a ferocious 1990s civil war whose participants sometimes outdid Isis in their barbarity – the throat-cutting of babies was a speciality in mountain villages – the length of a president’s rule and the rights of an indigenous language aren’t quite as important as they seem.
Here’s the problem. During the war, the Islamists – who morphed from being the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) into al-Qaeda – were confronted by an army and intelligence service whose use of torture was about as brutal as any in the Middle East. The smashing of teeth and fingernails was minor stuff. To make prisoners talk, the cops would truss them up, stick a rubber hose in their mouth and fill them up with water until they, quite literally, burst asunder. “If you started talking, you are dead,” a GIA men told me at the time. “Because if you start giving information, they’ll go on to the end.” They often did.
Some soldiers sought asylum in Europe and spilled the beans. They were given drugs, they said, and ordered to torture and murder suspects, especially if they had beards. One very senior officer sought libel damages in France against a soldier who’d detailed his experiences in this dirty war in a book – but the officer fled Paris the moment the court ruled against him. An amnesty upheld by our friend President Bouteflika insured not only that reformed “terrorists” would be free but that the army goons would never be punished.
Indeed, so terrible was the military’s behaviour that Algerian authors found it safer to write fiction about the war in order to tell readers the truth. One short story that actually went on sale in Algeria told of a lieutenant in the army who betrayed his comrades to the Islamists. His wife and children were brought to the scene by helicopter to find his officers had tied him to a tree with barbed wire. They were forced to watch as petrol was poured over the “traitor” and he was burned alive. Everyone knew the story was true.
So here we must turn to Mohamed Mediene, who was head of Algeria’s secret service for all those dark years, known – and referred to in the press – as one of the “eradicateurs”. He finally turned against Bouteflika when the latter (at great personal “sacrifice”, according to his flunkies) gained a fourth term in 2014. And then, last September, Mediene met his comeuppance. He was suddenly “retired” from service, apparently at the instigation of the defence minister and several leading generals who wanted to “clean up” the army.
To the shock of Algerians, “Toufik”, as he is known, suddenly appeared in the Algerian press – in sunglasses, I might add – to complain about the “unjust” jail sentence passed on his former chum General Abdelkader Ait Ourabi, who was head of “counter-terrorism”, the Algerian chaps who “dealt” with the civil war insurgents in so efficient a manner. Ourabi’s imprisonment was for “destruction of military records” and “disobeying military orders”. Mediene said that his subordinate had operated with “passion” – we can imagine what that means – and complied with his duties as an officer.
The whole affair prompted two questions. The first was obvious: just what was in those military records? The second – more opaque – was just how deep do the army’s roots lie in the body politic of Algeria, a country that was always controlled by the military? Is Bouteflika being edged out at the wish of Army veterans who are clipping his wings while ensuring that they have no trouble with the Berber people? Or – more likely if I read local journalist Nicholas Noe correctly – is the military “tearing itself apart”?
Crashing oil prices – and 60 per cent of Algeria’s budget is dependent on oil and gas – is not going to endear the “coffin president” to his people. Ten million Algerians live on the poverty line. And with Isis-thronged Libya, Niger and Mali as neighbours, a firm but new military hand may be in the offing. The French will be there to sell more weapons. And the Americans would of course welcome more allies in the “global war on terror”.
By sacking high-ranking officers and dismantling the Algerian Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), President Abdelaziz Bouteflika may think he has eliminated the military officials who have put him in power. However, in Algeria, as elsewhere, men disappear, but the system remains.
In Algeria, the plot cannot even compare to the best American thriller series. Plot twists, power plays and myths – all the ingredients of a great political thriller are present and all are fed by a code of silence to give a fictional sense of the power struggles at the top echelons of the state.
The cast is dominated by the two key political figures of the country. The first, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 78, has served four terms in office and spent 15 years in power, despite being in a wheelchair since his stroke in the spring of 2013.
The other, Mohamed Lamine Mediene, 76, is nicknamed Toufik, and has long been the intelligence services’ invisible chief. He has headed the DRS for over 25 years. Until last week, when a photo of Toufik was published in Algeria’s En-Nahar newspaper, the last known picture of him dated back to late 1990s.
These have long been the two faces reflecting the two-headed Algerian system, but that all changed on Sunday when Bouteflika replaced Toufik.
According to one advisor to the head of state, this will tip the balance of power in favour of the presidency.
“Since he is at al-Mouradia [presidential] palace, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been trying to turn the Algerian regime into a civilian power,” the advisor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Middle East Eye.
Mourad Goumiri, president of the Association of Algerian Academics for the Promotion of National Security Studies, told MEE that Bouteflika “never forgave the army”, particularly the military’s security, that excluded him in the late 1970s from becoming president after Houari Boumedienne, the spiritual father of the Algerian army.
When Boumedienne died in 1978, Bouteflika saw himself as his legitimate heir. He read Boumedienne’s funeral oration, a role traditionally reserved for person who will replace the deceased. But the army and the “Sécurité militaire” took a different position.
Kasdi Merbah, head of the powerful Sécurité Militaire, the forerunner of the DRS, and then-chief of staff of the military, judged Bouteflika as “too lightweight”, too liberal and too connected with foreign countries to succeed Boumedienne, Goumiri said.
“It seems that the profile built by the intelligence about Bouteflika designated him as not being ‘trusted’ enough and too much ‘linked to foreign powers’. This setback had deeply affected him,” he said.
Boudiaf and Tibhirine
For the political scientist Louisa Dris Ait Hamadouche, “this civil-military rivalry, a characteristic of a system that has never been and never had the intention of becoming monolithic, is not exclusive to Bouteflika and Mediene”.
Ait Hamadouche said the rivalry, in fact, goes back to 1956 and the Soummam Congress which was held to organise the young Algerian revolution against French colonialism and impose the rule of the “civil supremacy over [the] military”.
The congress also sought to limit, even then, tensions between the two trends dominating the Algerian nationalist movement that had become divided between the exiled leadership and supporters of Ahmed Ben Bella who became Algeria’s first post-independence president.
For 50 years, a balance was found between the army and powerful secret services, heirs of the war of independence, and strong civilian power embodied by the president. This delicate balance was broken in the 1990s: the absence of civilian power against the Islamist insurrection left Toufik and the chief of staff, who had been managing the war against armed Islamists, very powerful.
The real story of the much more recent Algerian war – between the Islamists and the government in the 1990s (total deaths 250,000) – still cannot be told by Algerian historians. It has been left to today’s Algerian novelists to cloak facts in fiction in order to reveal the truths of this terrible conflict.”
But eventually, by 2013, the balance of power between the two, said Ait Hamadouche, tilted back into Bouteflika’s favour by 2013 when he started to attack the DRS.
After returning from a long hospitalisation in Paris that year, Bouteflika launched his first strike. He transferred the responsibilities the DRS’s media monitoring centre to the general staff of the army whose chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, is a friend of the president. Bouteflika did so because he suspected the DRS of having leaked information in the media about his incapability to govern because of his illness after a nearly 80-day hospital stay.
He then turned on the DRS’s judicial police. Since 2009, the agency had been investigating corruption scandals including contracts of the public company, Sonatrach, which was led by then minister of energy and friend of Bouteflika’s, Chakib Khelil, and also questions surrounding the contracts for the building of the East-West highway.
These investigations indirectly involved individuals who were close to Bouteflika, including the Sonatrach investigation which led to the imprisonment of several leaders and, according to local reports, was alleged to involve Bouteflika’s brother, Said.
A new secret service, dependent on the army’s chief of staff, called the Military Operational Central Department for Investigations (MOCDI), was also established by the chief of staff from the DCSA, the army’s security unit which now also supervises the Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Department (OCCTID). Last August, even the mythical DRS armed wing, the Special Task Force (STF), fell under the ground forces’ command.
In addition to the dismemberment of DRS agencies, some changes in top posts this summer including major-generals Abdelhamid “Ali” Bendaoud, who was chief of the counter-intelligence, and Djamel Kehal Medjdoub, head of the presidential guard. Both were removed from their posts in late July after a mysterious report of “shots” were heard at the presidential residence. Then came the arrest at the end of August of Major General Abdelkader Ait Ouarabi, who was in charge of counter-terrorism at the DRS.
“It’s true, Bouteflika never liked the military and he never hid that fact,” a close associate to the presidential circle told MEE. The source, who preferred to remain anonymous, cited Bouteflika’s famous phrase back in 1999 when asked about his power possibly being curbed by the generals who had brought him to power: “I do not want to be a three-quarters of a president.”
In 1994, the generals considered having Bouteflika preside over Algeria in the war against armed Islamists. At the time, Bouteflika asked to become the country’s defence minister or army chief, knowing that if he did not control the army, he would have no power, only a façade of power. So the military chose one of their own, General Liamine Zeroual, who ruled as president from 1995 until 1998.
But even before Bouteflika started to pull back the power of the DRS in 2013, there was also a major shift in 2004, a source told MEE. At that time, Bouteflika’s campaign manager, head of government and right-hand man, Ali Benflis, under the influence of the chief of staff’s hawks, ran for presidential election against Bouteflika.
“Bouteflika finally overcame the plot, but he never forgot that betrayal,” said the source.
“Since the military brought him to the presidency in 1999, Bouteflika has continued to eliminate those who enthroned him, including civilians but also – and especially – military figures, and first in line was Larbi Belkheir,” said the academic, Mourad Goumiri.
Belkheir, president Chadli Bendjedid’s chief of staff in the 1980s, was called the “Cardinal of Frenda” from the name of his hometown. From the 1980s to the 2000s, he was the most powerful man in Algeria and considered the “Godfather” of great generals, including Mediene – until Bouteflika pushed him aside.
According to French Algerian researcher Amel Boubekeur, the dismissal of Mohamed Mediene is “business as usual” as part of a succession. Effectively, very little will change. “Even with the departure of Mediene we will still have security forces that are non-civilian controlled,” Ms. Boubekeur told The World Weekly. “The real issues people are interested in, like economic redistribution, are still conducted in an unfair non-transparent way and, with or without Mediene, Algerian leaders have proven unable to plan for a sustainable future or build a real welfare state.”
“This strategy has enabled him [Bouteflika] to renew his term four times with the decisive support of the DRS, including during the third term when he had a constitutional revision,” Gourmi said.
But Hamadouche stressed that even if the head of state has “always had the inclination to get rid of the influence of the army,” one cannot conclude he has succeeded.
“Until proven otherwise, and even if Gaïd Ahmed Salah, the army chief, is close to the presidency, the DRS have been attached to the chief of staff and thus remain within the military, under the same roof. The supremacy of politics over the military would imply the existence of civilian control of the military means, such as commissions to foreign affairs or defence. “
The political science professor also points out that, with the exception of the 1990s, a period that witnessed the DRS’s “transformation into a super structure to fight terrorism,” the chief of staff has always been in power.
“We remain in a complementary-rivalry relationship; a characteristic of all developing countries that are unable to complete their democratic transition,” she said.
The system’s backbone
A DRS official told Middle East Eye that the intelligence service will prove hard to eradicate.
“How can you destroy services that do not even officially exist?” he said sarcastically, citing the fact that the decrees that gave birth to the intelligence services departments were never officially published.
“Bouteflika may decide to play with or change their direction. However, he could not take away their influence,” the official added.
This view was shared by a former official with the Ministry of Armament and General Liaisons (MALG), which led the battle against the French during the country’s war of independence.
“The Algerian services over took the president, and even Mediène, who was only a caretaker. It is one step in their long transformation since the end of the late 1950s. Algeria had a powerful army and a powerful secret service even before being a state,” the MALG official said.
“This is the system’s backbone. Despite the hostility against the DRS or Mediène’s power, the presidential circle is aware that losing this unit would weaken its grip on the state and society.”
“Remember that when Bouteflika himself was in high school in Morocco, he was recruited in the National Liberation Army by Abdelhafid Boussouf… the founder of the Algerian services,” the official said.
A retired DRS officer admitted that the situation is not as clear as it seems: the “apparent” dismemberment of the DRS is occurring at the end of a reign, in a climate where the succession, not only Bouteflika’s but also Mediène’s and Gaid-Salah’s, provides material for speculation in Algiers’ salons and foreign embassies”.
Current tensions, he said, are only the result of a “consensus deficit” on the succession scenario of the three institutions at the helm of power – the president, army and DRS.
Has Algeria’s once-powerful secret service been dethroned?
Algeria is an enigma lodged at the bottom of a Pandora’s box. It is a society of contradictions that have come to dominate its social and political evolution. Quite unlucky when compared to its neighbours, it is ideologically progressive but culturally conservative. This combination served the country well in its struggle for independence but hurt it terribly after achieving it.
The National Liberation Front (FLN) which led the fight against France, never relinquished the Algerian version of doctrinaire Socialism. The result was to nearly bankrupt the country and push many of its sons and daughters to emigrate to Europe and the Americas in search of a better life.
The so-called Arab Spring and the move towards democracy did not begin with the Tunisian uprising in 2010 but with the free elections initiative introduced by Chadli Bendjedid, president of Algeria in 1991. That was the second instance of a voluntary relinquishing of power by an Arab ruler. The first was by Sewar Adahab in Sudan. In both these instances, free elections were held but the winners were not up to handling the immense responsibility placed in their laps, that of guiding their societies towards a new democratic direction.
In Sudan, Sadeq al-Mahdi got it and soon messed it up. In Algeria, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, leaders of the Islamic Front (FIS), scared the country’s progressive institutions and prompted the military to intervene.
The Islamic Front was poised to win the December 1991 first round elections by a wide majority. Algerians were fed up with the FLN and its economic policies that impoverished them and provided little vision for a better life. Indeed, in the first round of the 1991 parliamentary elections, the FLN received only 15 out of 429 seats.
For their part, the Islamists saw an opportunity to appeal to the conservative nature of Algerians and promised a better country and future. However, they did not commit themselves to the democratic process that propelled them towards power. It soon became apparent that the FIS believed in the democratic process only insofar as it brought them to power. Democracy and voting would have ended once the FIS achieved power. The Algerian military intervened on January 11, 1992, forced Bendjedid to resign, cancelled the second round of elections and established a High Council of State to govern.
A civil war raged in Algeria and consumed thousands of Algerian lives until 1999 when it began to subside after the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika who was relatively successful in initiating national reconciliation and eliminating radical and violent jihadist groups in the country. He was elected three times and is highly respected as an elder statesman. But Algeria continues to suffer from a devastated economy that relies on hydrocarbons and remittances from Algerians living abroad as the major sources of income. Hydrocarbons account for roughly 60 percent of budget revenues, 30 percent of GDP and over 95 percent of export earnings.
Algeria has a disproportionately young unemployed population and a poor and difficult quality of life. More than 10 percent of those under 24 are unemployed and a little over 23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Yet the trauma the country experienced during the civil war and Algerian yearning for stability has kept Bouteflika in power. More importantly, he is the military’s choice for president.
In the current elections, the 77-year-old Bouteflika is expected to win a fourth term but he is facing stiff competition from his most serious rival, former Prime Minister Ali Benflis. The main charge lodged against the incumbent is fraud and silencing opposition. Indeed, even Amnesty International has accused the Algerian government of clamping down on the press and limiting criticism of the government. Bouteflika’s election campaigns have been marred by fraud accusations since 1999, when all his opponents withdrew, and this election seems to be no different. Most of his opponents have withdrawn, including the Islamists, charging fraud.
Algeria’s economic and political problems need new leaders with new visions and no matter how much Algerians respect and revere Bouteflika, he is old and his poor health has made it difficult for him to actively participate in the election process.
In the current campaign, he has shown up only twice and he did not appear to be in good health. The mini strokes that landed him in a French hospital for three months last year, seem to have taken their toll on the old warrior. He is slow and his speech is slurred. Most probably he will win the 2014 elections and get a fourth term, but Algerians will continue to rely on oil and gas for income that will be spent on subsidising the horrendous poverty and the poor quality of life Algerians have been living, in spite of all the promises of prosperity from the political elite.
Dr Mansour O El-Kikhia is a columnist, educator, and writer on International and Middle Eastern affairs.