Algeria’s power struggle goes public

Friday 18/12/2015
December 14th front pages of Algerian newspapers bearing headlines on General Athmane “Bachir” Tartag, who recently replaced General Mohamed Mediene, better known as General Toufik, as head of Algeria’s military intelligence.

Algiers - Mohamed Mediene, the longtime security chief in Algeria who “retired” in Septem­ber, re-entered the country’s security debate with a letter written in support of a former subordinate who was sentenced to prison for disobeying orders.
Mediene led Algeria’s Depart­ment of Intelligence and Security (DRS) for 25 years and was seen at the centre of power in the country. Although he left office in Septem­ber, he stepped up recently with an open letter strongly in support of one of his deputies, Abdelkader Ait-Ouarabi
Ait-Ouarabi, known as General Hassan in the intelligence commu­nity, on November 26th became the first senior intelligence officer convicted in Algeria after he was charged with a “breach of military rules”. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Ait-Ouarabi had headed Scorat, the operational coordination and counterterrorism intelligence ser­vice, which draws elite troops fo­cused on thwarting terrorist plots and infiltrating jihadist groups.
He was a key ally of Mediene, who had been seen as untouchable before the surprise in September announcement that Algerian Presi­dent Abdelaziz Bouteflika had ac­cepted Mediene’s “retirement”.
Some analysts argue that Ait- Ouarabi’s jailing was another slap at Mediene, further showing he no longer had influence in Algeria’s power circles.
The removals of Mediene and other senior officers have been viewed as fulfillment of Boutefli­ka’s long-stated goal to exert more civilian control over the powerful DRS.
The DRS made itself integral to virtually every institution in the country and Mediene was blamed for the security crisis that dete­riorated the political and economic sectors, argued Amar Saidani, sec­retary-general of the National Lib­eration Front (FLN).
The DRS failed to protect former president Mohamed Boudiaf, who was killed by a DRS soldier in 1992, and did not anticipate an attempt to assassinate Bouteflika in 2007, Saidani said.
He also cited terrorist acts in Al­geria in the 1990s and more recent ones, such as the al-Qaeda-linked hostage-taking at the Tiguentou­rine gas facility near Amenas in January 2013 as points of DRS fail­ure.
Mediene’s open letter, published December 3rd while Bouteflika was in France for a routine medical check-up, could be a move to re-establish Mediene’s power.
He congratulated Ait-Ouarabi for a job well done. “The most urgent thing today is to right the wrong done to an officer who served his country with passion,” he wrote. He added that Ait-Ouarabi was not a renegade officer. “He handled his mission in full respect of normal procedures and gave updates at the appropriate moments”.
Saidani told supporters that Me­diene’s letter was meant to mirror the former intelligence chief’s de­spair. “He was drowning, drown­ing, drowning,” Saidani said.
Algerian Minister of Communi­cations Hamid Grine said the letter “is extremely violent. I can even talk about hyper-violence.” He added that “a senior former officer is required [to follow] the duty of discretion”.
A group of 19 well-known per­sonalities cast doubt that the purge of the intelligence services oc­curred with Bouteflika’s blessing. The group sent a letter to Boutef­lika on November 1st requesting a meeting to determine whether the president could adequately man­age state affairs.
Bouteflika, 78, who suffered a stroke in 2013, has been seen most­ly in brief television images or in photographs on state media since winning a fourth presidential term in 2014.
Questions over Bouteflika’s health have left his opponents ask­ing who replaces him if he cannot govern for his entire term and how that affects political and economic reform in the vast North African country.
Many say a debate should have been initiated on the role of the intelligence services in democrat­ic transition. The success of any emerging democracy in the Arab world relies heavily on security.
Recent developments make clear that the Algerian military, which has long been called “the great mum” for its ability to keep the power struggle within the regime under wraps, is no longer willing to do so.