Algiers, Asharq Al-Awsat—The surprise cabinet reshuffle enacted by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in September remain the source of significant speculation within the Algerian political arena, as do many of his more recent political decisions. Many observers are considering them a prelude to an unprecedented fourth term in office, but the president’s office has neither confirmed nor denied any such ambitions despite Bouteflika’s own National Liberation Front announcing that he will run for a fourth term in office last month.
Bouteflika has surprised many in Algeria with his recent decisions, including curbing the power of the country’s security services and appointing his allies to key ministries. Most Algerians probably expected the ailing president, 76, to take a step back after a stroke reportedly left him partially paralyzed earlier this year. But he can never escape the shadow of his 2008 amendment to Algeria’s constitution, which lifted the two-term limit on the country’s presidents.
His decision to distance influential figures from power is seen as the first step of a master plan.
One good example of this is Gen. Mohamed Mediène, better known as Toufik, the director of the Intelligence and Security Department (DRS) at the Ministry of Defense. General Toufik has been a major player on the Algerian scene over the past decade, but Bouteflika’s recent decisions have weakened the role of DRS, stripping Algeria’s spy chief of some of his powers.
In mid-September, Bouteflika took a number of “bold” decisions to purge the country’s powerful security and intelligence apparatus. He sacked two heavyweight intelligence generals, Director of Internal Security Maj. Gen. Bachir Tartag and counterespionage chief Gen. Rachid Laalali. These two high-ranking officers were retired by presidential decree—the president is the commander-in-chief of the Algerian Armed Forces, according to the constitution.
General Laalali, 75, has been replaced by Colonel Zuhair, who previously served as the military attaché at the Algerian embassy in Spain. Major General Tartag has been replaced by Gen. Ali Ben Daoud, former military attaché at the Algerian embassy in Paris.
Before they were sidelined, Laalali and Tartag were not only influential in Algeria’s security apparatus, they were also at the heart of political decision-making in the country. The two generals were also key supporters of General Toufik, and their removal has somewhat weakened the man who has dominated Algeria’s intelligence services for over 20 years. Laalali, Tartag and Toufik are shadowy figures and are rarely seen in public.
The popular rumor is that General Toufik was one of the military officers who supported Bouteflika’s presidency following the resignation of former president Liamine Zéroual, which perhaps explains the strange dynamic between the two men.
But Bouteflika has bided his time, waiting until his 14th year in office to begin stripping Algeria’s powerful security services of some of their once-immense power. He took control of the Broadcasting and Communications Center, which controls advertising and journalism in the country, from the security apparatus, and did the same with the Military Security Directorate, which has been placed under the direct control of the military.
The Algerian president has also reworked the position of Algeria’s judicial police, previously affiliated to the DRS, by placing them under the supervision of the army. This organization had been a stick with which the DRS beat Bouteflika, launching investigations into those close to him that often led to corruption charges.
It appears that Bouteflika is finally in a position to do something about his tense relationship with the DRS, removing senior intelligence officers and replacing them with figures loyal to him. The swift changes enacted by Bouteflika have left many with the impression that the Algerian president is now seeking to tighten his grip on all security agencies. In Algeria, people across the political spectrum are now wondering how long General Toufik can last now that Laalali and Tartag are gone.
A source within the Algerian president’s office speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity said: “You should not be fooled into believing that the president is locked in a struggle with the leadership of the security services. . . . This could never happen, because the men work together by agreement, sometimes as equals. In other words, General Toufik knows the boundaries he cannot cross when it comes to the president’s authority, and Bouteflika knows the boundaries that he cannot cross in terms of the powers granted to General Toufik.”
“Some of the changes in the army and security service leadership took place at the request of those affected—those who wanted to retire. Others wanted to stop due to ill health. You shouldn’t look for something that isn’t there,” the source added.
“As for the broad changes in the government, where the president has placed people loyal to him in the interior and justice ministries and in the constitutional council, I can tell you that this is the government for the 2014 presidential elections. The president intends to run for a fourth term,” the presidential source told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Anwar Malek, a former Algerian officer living in exile in France who is well versed in the mysteries of the Algerian government, said that what some are seeing as a violent overthrow of the security apparatus are actually “cosmetic, rather than substantive,” changes.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, the former officer said: “The primary goal the authorities will have had is to present Bouteflika as strong and in control of the state—including the security apparatus. On the other hand, the big changes taking place in the region, the security deterioration along Algeria’s borders, and the corruption scandals that have come to light have forced these actions and changes in military and government officials. But to say that there is a struggle between the intelligence service and the presidency—this is just to distract public opinion. There is no struggle whatsoever; they are in perfect harmony.”
“Everything that is happening is by agreement between the intelligence service, the president, and the Ministry of Defense. These are steps necessitated by the moment that have forced themselves on everybody, particularly given the developments in the Arab world during the Arab Spring,” he added.
Abdulaziz Rahabi, a former Minister of Communications and spokesman for the previous government, said that he believes that the president has put the army at the heart of politics.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I can say that we have entered the period of ‘president for life.’ I do not believe we will have presidential elections in 2014, because the president is keen to amend the constitution to extend his term by extending the presidential term from seven years to five.”
The former added that the decisions taken by Bouteflika “fall under the framework of a bid to control the presidency, to remain in power. The new government demonstrates this, as it is formed of ministers loyal to Bouteflika.”
Rahabi added: “The recent government changes were akin to a fait accompli that Bouteflika wanted to impose on Algerians. Usually, a government reshuffle takes place six or seven months before the election at the request of political parties in order to ensure the greatest possible transparency and integrity for the elections.”
The former minister contrasted the most recent cabinet reshuffle with the situation in the country prior to the 1999 elections. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The National Liberation Front, which nominated Bouteflika, requested a change in government. People with no political allegiance were put into sensitive positions. Ismail Hamdani was head of the government, Abdelmalek Sellal [the current prime minister] was the interior minister, and I was the communications minister. But now the situation is the reverse, and there are ministers loyal to the president in all the important posts.”
Rahabi also criticized the changes in the security services: “In this way, Bouteflika has put the army at the heart of political power. This is a situation that all the presidents before him have tried to avoid.”