Is Le Pouvoir Losing Its Grip on Algeria?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on September 15, 2015

A rare picture of DRS chief Mohamed Mediène (a.k.a. Toufik)

A rare picture of DRS chief Mohamed Mediène (a.k.a. Toufik)

Yesterday, Algeria’s elderly president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, removed from office Mohamed Mediène (a.k.a. Toufik), the head of DRS (Le Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité), the spy agency that is the real power behind the throne in Algeria. There is some suggestion this is Bouteflika trying to prepare the way for a civilian government as his time in office—and on the planet—draws to a close. There is little reason to believe, however, that Algeria’s government will be much reformed by Toufik’s departure.

While Algeria is formally a one-party dictatorship led by Le Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), in reality authority has rested with a small cabal of officers and their clansmen for decades, whom the Algerians call le pouvoir (the power). Toufik is a crucial member of le pouvoir, effectively ruling Algeria—at the very least the kingmaker—for much of the time since he took over as head of DRS in 1990, making him the longest-serving intelligence chief in the world. Despite such longevity in power, Toufik is an obsessively secretive man: he never appears in public and few photographs of him exist.

Toufik was in office when the Algerian military cancelled the elections in January 1992 because it looked like the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut or Islamic Salvation Front) would win and brought off a coup that placed Algeria temporarily under open military rule. The façade of civilian and democratic rule would be restored later.

The standard narrative of what followed is that the FIS responded with violent resistance to the military crackdown and Algeria slid into a savage civil war, where the insurgents got more extreme over time, notably with the appearance of the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé), which helped isolate the insurgents from the population and allowed an effective regime victory by 1998, even though the civil war never did really end and low-level violence continues to this day.

The reality of what happened in Algeria is rather different. Even before the civil war broke out, le pouvoir had decided on provocation, what they called a “strategy of tension,” designed to push the opposition into violence and extremism that would discredit them, and make the regime look like the best alternative.

Toufik was one of three men who directed the Algerian regime’s policy, according to Mohamed Samraoui, a senior DRS officer between 1990 and 1996 who later defected. (The other two men were Smain Lamari, a coup leader who became head of the Department of Counter-Espionage and Internal Security during the war, and infamously said at a meeting in May 1992: “I am ready to eliminate three million Algerians if necessary to maintain the order the Islamists threaten.” And Kamel Abderrahmane, the head of the Central Directorate for Army Security.)

After the war erupted, DRS ensured that extremists got the upper-hand in the insurgency, assassinating the peaceful oppositionists and intellectuals, facilitating the importation of foreign Salafi-jihadists, fabricating extremist groups to magnetize more foreigners and to multiply the number of actors within the insurgency to avoid a united opposition, and infiltrating insurgent groups at the highest levels and having these DRS agents adopt policies that damaged the insurgents’ cause, such as massacring whole villages for being “infidels”. It is unclear whether GIA was originally an independent group or was a straight-out creation of the DRS, but it quickly came under DRS’s strategic control after its emergence in 1993.

DRS officers even donned Islamist garb and perpetrated atrocities directly. As Samraoui explained, “During the massacres, the inhabitants of the first houses were deliberately spared to enable survivors say they recognised the Islamists.” More than 100,000 people were killed because of le pouvoir‘s determination to hold power and the horrific methods they were prepared to employ toward that end.

“All this may seem implausible,” Samraoui notes, but less so once it’s understood that “the real power was seized by a handful of officers … trained by the KGB”. This consideration tells against Toufik’s removal being a step toward genuine reform in Algeria: the new DRS chief, General Athmane Tartag, a specialist in counterinsurgency who is a close ally and former security advisor to Bouteflika, was, just like Toufik, trained by the KGB. Several other senior DRS members have been dismissed recently, but this looks much more like a change of personnel than a change of system.

The Algerian regime is entering a rough patch, not least because of the collapse of oil revenue, and Bruce Riedel suggests, persuasively, that the dismissal of such a brutal and hated enforcer of the dictatorship is a concession of sorts to buy the regime some space.

Algeria has avoided the upheaval of the “Arab spring” in no small part because le pouvoir broke the organized (largely Islamist) opposition and terrified the strategic majority of the population—much of the middle classes, the large secular-urban population, and the minorities like the Berbers—that any move to destabilize the dictatorship would be a return to the “years of blood“.

In short, while Toufik’s firing is being reported by some as an effort by Bouteflika to curb the power of the intelligence agencies, and leave behind a different kind of government in Algeria where civilians have more actual power, there is every indication that Toufik’s firing is meant to preserve the status quo, not challenge it.

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