The end of an era in Algeria
Algeria holds a distinctive position in the Middle East and North Africa. Largely due to its historic experience, Algeria’s military has always played a dominant role in politics.
The rioting of October 1988, which some view as a precursor to the “Arab spring”, led initially to liberal reforms but ultimately to civil war between security forces and armed Islamic groups throughout the 1990s. The army emerged as the only effective powerbroker in a political landscape dominated by weak and competing factions.
Despite turnovers in presidential and parliamentary elections, Algeria remains steadfastly under the control of the military, which is unwilling to cede full power to a civilian government.
On September 13th, the ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is serving a fourth term in office, removed his powerful intelligence chief in a shake-up of the security forces that surprised Algerians. General Mohamed Mediene was head of the Algerian secret services, the Intelligence and Security Department (DRS), from 1990-2015 throughout the security crisis that characterised the period. Nicknamed “Toufik”, he has been described as the world’s longest-serving “intelligence chief”.
Mediene created a myth around himself. Little is known about him. Nobody knows his birthday or birthplace. His photograph was published for the first time in a local newspaper only after his removal.
On the eve of independence in 1962, Mediene was sent to study at a KGB school in the Soviet Union. Over time he became a feared figure, as he built the DRS into an immensely powerful institution, a state within a state that directed Algeria’s fight against militant Islamists.
Mediene supported Bouteflika in the 1999 election, which could have ushered in an irreversible democratic process if the military had not corrupted it. Mediene then became Algeria’s undisputed strong man after the 2004 presidential election and the unexpected dismissal of army chief Mohamed Lamari.
Mediene amassed immense power allegedly through collecting information and blackmailing politicians, other public servants and business people. People in high positions in government or public firms had to pledge allegiance and commitment to the DRS. Mediene wished to be called Rab al-Djazair — the “God of Algeria”.
Mediene’s dismissal came just a few weeks after the arrest of another former intelligence chief, Abdelkader Ait-Ouarabi, and the removal of several other intelligence officials.
These steps in the reorganisation of DRS are seen in Algeria as the fulfilment of Bouteflika’s long-stated aim to exert civilian control over the powerful security apparatus.
Since rising to prominence, Bouteflika has been trying to turn the Algerian regime into a “civilian state”, as opposed to a “DRS-state”, despite DRS co-opting him four times.
In an interview in February 2014, Amar Saadani, the ruling party’s secretary-general and a close ally of Bouteflika, boldly demanded Mediene’s resignation and the DRS’s removal from politics. On the eve of the April 2014 election, a battle raged between the president’s office and the DRS. Bouteflika had not succeeded in promoting his youngest brother, Said, to prominence. He secured a fourth term although he was virtually unable to speak and act during the presidential campaign.
The civil state that Bouteflika strives to establish remains essentially a security state. Military expenditure has steadily increased since Bouteflika took power, reaching $12.3 billion in 2014. Military and security spending accounted for 32% of the national budget in 2015, twice the expenditure allocated to the development of human capital and knowledge.
Algeria is the largest military spender in Africa. Increased terrorist threats from Islamist groups in North Africa and the Sahel, an arms race with Morocco and the ongoing modernisation of the armed forces are factors driving military expenditure and militarisation of political life.
Algeria, like other Arab states, needs a new concept of security to face new challenges, local and regional. A profound and radical security reform is more urgently needed than the purchase of sophisticated military technology. Reform should enhance horizontal security — security for the entire society — and not the vertical security of elites.