Algeria's latest change is a two-sided story

Algeria's latest change is a two-sided story
Analysis: Separating the military from political governance is a delicate task, reports Massinissa Benlakehal.
5 min read
14 October, 2015
President Bouteflika faces an uphill battle to reform the military's role in the state [Getty]

Weeks after Algeria's head of military intelligence, General Mohamed Mediene, was retired from service, President Bouteflika has broken his silence and explained the latest movings and shakings in the army's forces.

This series of reshuffles and reorganisations inside the military intelligence service, known as the DRS, "concern an architecture existing for 25 years", the president said.

The moves aim to strengthen the capacity and effectiveness of the country's intelligence service, he argued.

According to a government source, who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak on the matetr officially, there is more to this than meets the eye.

"There is another side of this story, which they'll never talk about," he said. "Especially the fact that there is a power struggle between the well-known presidential clan and the intelligence services personnel."

For decades, according to our source, a delicate balance of power was found between the president's inner circle and the intelligence service under General Toufik. But the balance has now slipped.

     Algeria's new power structure remains a controversial topic

Loose change

To date, Algeria's new power structure remains a controversial topic. As the country is building up a new Constitution, Algeria's ailing president argued on Thursday that "these changes aim to adapt the intelligence services to the national political changes" also already underway.

A series of security and political reforms have been undertaken since 2011, following the lifting of the state of emergency as part of the constitutional revision plan.

For the first time ever, the country's ruler has paid tribute to the DRS, pointing out that it "contributed selflessly to safeguard the state, assuming the tasks of major national interest", and adding that it "conceals human resources who have proven competence".

In power since 1999, Bouteflika has never praised the intelligence service during his three terms of office.

Cleaning job

Ali Zaoui, a former security officer, is now an expert on security related issues.

"This accelerated process of removing highly ranked personnel in the military aims at withdrawing completely this institution from political life," he told al-Araby.

The remake of this image is intended to silence the rumours which claim Bouteflika has no real power over his generals - a theory believed by the majority of Algerians, as well as many outside the country.

According to Zaoui, the image of a country being ruled in shadow by ghosts and corrupt highly ranked army members has to change. Misreading the country's real political situation is likely to bring much more harm.

Many Algerians have no understanding of how the country's political system works.

Nadjib R owns a honey shop he has run for the past 15 years.

"To be honest, I'm 40 now," he said. "I grew up and studied in Algiers, but I never managed to understand the way my country's politics progresses."

Nadjib, who has a degree in political studies, points out his inability to understand how politics is handled in Algeria.

"In fact, it's impossible to predict - as it always misleads everyone, even the most experienced ones in politics," he adds.

"And from what little I do know, Bouteflika's message explaining his decisions has come too late. He should have done it the same day he sent General Toufik to retirement.

"This could have avoided - having all these rumours about General Toufik being fired."

Mohamed Mediene, also known as General Toufik, was sent into retirement in mid-September, after 25 years as the head of the country's intelligence service.

The new chief, 66-year-old General Athmane Tartag, known here as General Bachir, has served as the president's counter-terrorism and security adviser since March 2014.

General Gaid Salah, the army chief of staff, is also expected to be the next leading military official to retire - reportedly by November this year.

Many here think the "pouvoir" - or "deep state" powerful elites - believe the ailing President Bouteflika will be unable to carry on his fourth term, possibly retiring himself as early as 2016.

Non-abiding governors

Meziane Abane is a 32-year-old journalist working for El Watan newspaper, one of the country's best-selling French language outlets.

"These changes were made by the General [Toufik] by himself as a preparation before his departure," he said.

     The high-level machinations of the state may have little day-to-day effect on much of the population and their way of life

"And that succeeded, in reality. His departure caused worries and major concerns. Observers I spoke with believe that the intelligence service has been weakened since the restructuring process has kicked off, worsening since the departure of Toufik.”

The high-level machinations of the state may have little day-to-day effect on much of the population and their way of life. The gulf between the population and the power structure governing them opened up a long time ago.

The population's concerns are today much more focused on the impact of the Finance Law 2016, which was adopted on October 5.

The act was approved after oil prices fell 50 percent.

"The country is in a delicate situation and could be facing a serious crisis in the near future," the president told ministers.

The serious disruptions rocking the global hydrocarbon market are likely to affect Algeria.

Algeria is no longer the military state it was when Bouteflika first took office, 15 years ago. But a productive economy and a democratic state is what is both wanted and needed, Abane insists.

"There are many things lacking in terms of real health systems, as well as the country's education system," Abane said.

"Corruption has plagued all of the state's institutions and corrupt officials within the government managed to avoid being charged by the justice department.

"That is why the country requires a real free judicial system, despite all measures implemented so far, since 2011 with the lifting of the state of emergency."