Behind the ousting of Algeria's secretive spy chief 'General Toufik'

By Rana Jawad
BBC North Africa correspondent

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Algerians saw one of the rare photos of General Toufik when his dismissal was announced

The dismissal of Algeria's secretive head of intelligence, Mohamed Mediene, is one of the biggest political shake-ups in the North African country's recent memory.

Known by his alias "General Toufik", the 76-year-old is said to be one of the longest-serving secret service chiefs in the world.

Trained by the Soviet KGB in the 1960s, he oversaw Algeria's Intelligence and Security Directorate (DRS) for 25 years.

It makes President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's 16 years at the helm pale in comparison.

It is not clear if he was actually sacked on Sunday or "retired", but his exit has left some observers breathless as they speculate about what his departure means for Algeria's rulers - both present and future, given that the 78-year-old president is ailing and is rarely heard from.

'War on terror'

General Toufik headed the DRS in 1992 when a general election won by an Islamist party was annulled by the military - and the intelligence service played a leading role in the civil war that followed, in which more than 150,000 people died.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
There was a massive security crackdown during the civil war

The DRS, much like its equivalents in neighbouring countries in North Africa and the Middle East, is reputed to be a ferocious entity that routinely collected state and civilian secrets that it could use against enemies in the future.

It is not unusual for intelligence chiefs to be cloaked in mystery, but perhaps unlike his regional counterparts, the extent of the general's influence and his power in Algeria has reached an almost mythical level.

He has rarely been captured by a camera lens and few outside the circle of power have personally met or spoken to him, which adds to the enigma surrounding him and the power he exercised.

One observer on Twitter quipped: "Bouteflika, the man who no longer speaks publicly, dismissed Toufik, the man who never appears in public."

But what is known about the general is that he was both feared and supported because of his role in the so-called "war on terror" - and the ruthless way it continues to take on Islamist militants in the Sahara.

Secret service purge

So what does his dismissal mean for Algeria?

There has been a gradual purge in the country's security elite over the past two years.

The DRS's most senior generals have been sacked, arrested or "replaced" one by one in recent months.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's health problems have been a badly kept secret

Gen Mediene's replacement, Maj Gen Athmane Tartag, is seen as a close ally of President Bouteflika and has served as his security adviser for the last year.

Few are willing to speak on the record about the latest changes.

But observers generally believe the spy chief's departure is connected to Algeria's present dilemma: What happens after President Bouteflika?

For a smoother transition, potential obstacles may be being removed.

Replacing a generation of "politicised" military and intelligence figures from the civil war era would be key to that scenario.

However, some have argued that the recent sackings are part of a wider plan to "demilitarise" the country by curbing the powers of its all-powerful security agencies - a process that has been in the works for years.

Yet Algeria's history, in which the military has been so central, makes that argument hard to swallow.

Bowing to the French?

The editor of Algeria's private El Watan Weekend newspaper, Adlene Meddi, is worried about the changes and believes they pave the way for power to be further centralised in the hands of a few.

"The recent moves could create dangerous confrontations in the country," he told me.

It is rupturing the delicate balance of power in Algeria that he argues traditionally existed between the presidency, the army and the intelligence services.

He says the latest moves could create a presidency that is controlled by Algeria's business oligarchs or one that bows to foreign allies like former colonial power France, a prospect that is still sensitive in the country.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The balance of power appears to be changing in Algeria

General Toufik is also rumoured to have said he was against President Bouteflika's decision to run for a fourth term in April last year - although, of course, he never publically expressed his views.

But the secretary-general of Algeria's ruling FLN party, Amar Saadani, objected at the time to what he described as the intelligence services meddling in his party's affairs.

"They must focus on security issues. The place of the army is in the barracks," he was quoted as saying.

Given this background and the backroom political posturing over what happens after President Bouteflika, the dismissals suggest there is a shift in power bases.

However, the endgame is arguably as opaque as the man who was rarely photographed.

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