ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) He was known as the “Lord of Algeria” and was the longest serving intelligence chief in the world a J Edgar Hoover-like figure who dominated Algerian politics and had files on everyone.
Yet on Sunday, Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene was summarily fired by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, ending his 25-year tenure at the head of Algeria’s fearsome intelligence service, the Directorate of Intelligence and Security.
The downfall of Mediene could breathe new life into Algeria’s politics, which have been deadlocked over succession, even as falling oil prices threaten the country’s stability.
Newspapers and television around the country have been stunned by the news, proclaiming the end of an era, and many wondering if it will mean the end of a political life characterized by rumors, murky backroom deals and a great deal of paranoia.
Algeria’s powerful president had been locked in direct competition with Mediene for 15 years, a seesaw battle that saw many of the president’s associates charged with corruption.
In Algeria, it has been called “The Battle of the Clans,” a backroom struggle for power among the army, the presidency, wealthy businessmen and the intelligence service.
In the last two years, despite suffering from a stroke, Bouteflika moved aggressively to reorganize the intelligence services and move many departments out of Mediene’s control and to the army, run by his close ally Gen. Gaid Saleh.
According to Algeria analyst Kal Ben Khalid, the restructuring of the intelligence service was to allow Bouteflika, an ailing 78-year-old, to hand over power to the candidate of his choice.
“We are seeing coup proofing happening in Algeria, that’s what it looks like to me,” said Khalid, who writes a North Africa blog called The Moor Next Door. “They are trying to pave the way for succession, part of what you have to do in that situation is you have shape the environment so it is conducive to whatever decision you make.”
Mediene’s departure could also at long last see the accession of a new generation to Algerian leadership, which has been dominated by those who fought for independence against France.
His successor as the head of intelligence, Athmane Tartag, is in his 60s and at least a decade younger than the president and his former boss. The hope is that this kind of transition could breathe some life into Algeria’s long moribund political life.
Geoff Porter, a veteran Algeria analyst with the North Africa Risk Consulting firm, said while it is too early to tell what Mediene’s retirement will bring for the country’s politics, at least it means debate over the succession the fundamental question for the country is over.
“Whatever one may think of President Bouteflika and Mohamed Mediene, uncertainty regarding the presidency hamstrung Algeria for the last two years, if not more,” he said. “The more clarity we have about Algeria’s presidential succession and the sooner we have it, the better.”
Competition for power in Algeria will continue, however, and will still have little to do with the registered political parties and the periodic elections, said Djallil Lounnas, an Algeria expert and professor of international relations at Al Akhawayn University.
For now, the president’s clan, with the backing of the army, is ascendant, but the structure of the intelligence service remains, he noted.
“It is too soon to say that the intelligence services are out of the picture,” he said. “Tartag has the reputation of a strong personality he is a man to be reckoned with.”
This is the problem, said Mohammed Saidj, a professor at Algiers University. Even though the political logjam has been broken for now, the fundamental political system which has seen the country sunk in a malaise, will not change.
“This will be a good thing if the end of Toufik means the lifting of political control on the parties and newspapers,” he said. “But if his retirement is just part of the war of the clans to ease Bouteflika’s succession, then nothing will change and the same practice will continue just with different people.”
Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco.