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Has Algeria’s once-powerful secret service been dethroned? | The World Weekly

The return of sovereign power

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.

General Athmane Tartag, otherwise known as ‘Bachir’, pictured on December 13, 2015

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. 

President Bouteflika is seen at a press conference in Algiers, Algeria, on October 21, 1963, during the war of independence

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’

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.

Houari Boumediene (R) meets with Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin (L) on October 5, 1971

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”.

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