Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Algeria, Political Dinosaurs Battle for Supremacy

Bouteflika and General Toufik political battle
Men carry the body of one of the 11 Berbers killed during ethnic unrest in the southern Ghardaia region, during a funeral ceremony in Guerrara, southern Algeria, 11 July 2015. Photo AP/Mokhtar

From the late 1980s until the Arab Spring in 2011, Algeria presented a different political picture to the world. In a region where one-party regimes and absolute rulers were the norms, Algeria had multiparty elections and a partially free press. In reality, a shadow state has long been running the show, composed of an informal triumvirate: the presidency, the army and the secret services. With the replacement this month of General Toufik, the country’s longtime security chief, the third pillar has fallen, leaving the country in the hands of the presidency, the military, and the unknown.

The war of independence from France (1954-1962) affected Algeria’s postcolonial politics and, since 1962, the country has been ruled by the Mujahedeen (independence fighters) and their supporters. The other major factor was the bloody civil war in the 1990s, which opposed Islamist guerrilla groups to the state, and increased the power of the security and intelligence forces.

In order to survive, the Algerian regime built an impressive security and military structure that controlled the state and secured its borders. Algeria’s first presidents were all army men, and political life was closed down until the presidency of Chadli Bendjedid who in 1988 permitted multiparty politics. That led to the strengthening of Islamist parties, which went on to win the 1991 elections. A group of generals then stepped in to contest the win and establish their own rule. It was the beginning of the décennie noire, Algeria’s bloody civil war.

One of these generals, nicknamed the Janviéristes, was Mohamed Mediène, better known as Toufik, head of Algeria’s DRS (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, equivalent to the KGB). General Toufik, who led the DRS from 1990 to 2015, transformed his department into the dorsal fin of the Algerian state, and is believed to have been behind many of the atrocities committed during the civil war.

Toufik was widely regarded as Algeria’s most influential and feared man, a kingmaker who preferred to stay out of sight, plotting tricks and conspiracies from the political wings. He played a role in Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s “selection” as president in 1999, and was instrumental in sidelining General Mohamed Lamari, the army chief of staff in 2004, replacing him with Bouteflika supporter General Ahmed Gaid Salah. The army then seemed to be on Bouteflika’s side.

In the years following 2000, however, animosities between the Bouteflika and Toufik camps grew. Bouteflika began delegating power to people around him, such as his brother Said, and acting independently from the intelligence chief. The two groups’ interests clashed, with Bouteflika’s brother – and clients – amassing power and wealth and encroaching on Toufik and the DRS’ territory.

In 2009, the DRS opened a file on those close to Bouteflika, among them his energy minister Chakib Khelil. Khelil was obliged to resign and forced into exile. Toufik wanted to show Bouteflika how strong he was. There were also recurrent attacks in the media against men and women considered close to either side – Algeria’s most influential newspapers have links to either the presidency or the DRS.

In 2013, Bouteflika became partly incapacitated following a stroke. Toufik was convinced that the president was out of the game, and unable to fulfil his task as head of state. He made it clear to Bouteflika and his aides that a new president should emerge from the 2014 elections. Toufik was opposed to Bouteflika’s candidacy, but his protest was ignored.

The Downfall of Toufik

Media aligned with Bouteflika began to criticize the DRS more aggressively, and in 2014 Amar Saidan, secretary-general of Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front party, publicly attacked Toufik. It was the first such open criticism and revealed just how weak Toufik – once nicknamed the God of Algiers – had become. In the following months, his agencies were emptied of their strongmen and his powers transferred to other departments and ministries. Dozens of high-ranking officials in his entourage were forced into retirement.

The process accelerated in 2015 and the criticism of the DRS reached its climax after the mysterious attack on Bouteflika’s summer palace in Zeralda. It was perceived as a failure by the country’s secret services and allowed Bouteflika to “clean his garden” of his enemy’s men.

General Hassen (Abdelkader Ait-Ouarab), head of counterterrorism and one of Toufik’s closest allies, was fired last year and then arrested after the Zeralda attack on charges of plotting a coup. It was the final blow for Toufik, but perhaps also Bouteflika’s last bold attempt to test his enemy’s strength. Toufik’s inability to react emboldened the presidency and on 13 September 2015 the old spy was replaced.

Two weeks after his departure, Toufik has all but disappeared. This is hardly surprising given his famed anonymity – one of the only photographs published of him is a blurry shot taken in the 1990s. Yet the media continues to point the finger of blame for Algeria’s woes at the fallen devil. The empire he built inside the state apparatus is being dismantled week by week. Is he preparing for a counterattack? Or for a swan song? Will he be persecuted like General Hassen?

These questions are still to be answered. What is certain is that Bouteflika won this political round. The ailing leader who can barely talk and walk was able to remove his old ally and recent enemy. He won because of the support of the military, which is now the other major player alongside the presidency. Have the country’s problems ended there? On the contrary, this is perhaps only the beginning. Algeria has turned to its natural resources to build a strong welfare state, but as oil prices tumble, the country is facing a recession. Regional insecurity, especially mounting unrest in neighbouring Mali and Libya, is being felt across Algeria’s borders. This threat is exacerbating the country’s internal instability, opening the gates for more uncertainty.

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