Most people are (understandably) impressed by the workings of the #1 secret service in the world. But the account below of the man who heads the Algerian secret service DRS is awe-inspiring as well.
The most powerful man in Algeria has no public face.
His name is
Mohamed Lamine Mediène. Everyone calls him “Toufik.” Another nickname
is the “God of Algiers,” supposedly because he’s more powerful than the
An Algerian dissident who blogs under the name Baki Hour Mansour
analyzed several photos that claimed to represent Mediène and found them
all lacking: “Finding Toufik has
become a Where’s Waldo-type game: whenever a film or an archive emerges
and an unknown face is seen among senior officials, the Algerian
blogosphere hastens to declare it a new Toufik face,” he wrote.
Mediène actually exist? Experts say yes.
As head of Algeria’s
multitentacled DRS, or intelligence and security department, Mediène is
in charge of le Pouvoir, a shadowy cabal of generals, politicians and spies that constitutes Algeria’s deep state.
Mediène has led the DRS since 1990, which, according to some sources,
makes him the longest-serving intelligence chief in the world. He is 73
years old, spritely in comparison with the ailing president, Abdelaziz
Bouteflika, who is 76. There are pictures of Bouteflika, but usually
only from the waist up. (He spent the summer in a Paris military
hospital, convalescing from a stroke.)
In some ways, the secrecy
surrounding Mediène is just “built into the profession,” says Dr. Chuck
Cogan, a retired CIA official at the Belfer Center, part of Harvard’s
John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Also, Algeria is among the largest
remaining muhkabarats , or police states, in the world. Though
political repression has lightened somewhat since the 1990s, many
Algerians still view their neighbors and strangers as potential “snakes,” or spies, and there is a widespread culture of suspicion.
Mediène’s invisibility also has roots in Algeria’s battle for
independence against France, which lasted from 1954 to 1962. It was
largely a guerrilla campaign, complete with noms de guerre and moles and
When Medèine and his peers came to rule, they
held on to the rebel mindset, says Lazare Beullac, editor in chief of
the Maghreb Confidential,
a Paris-based newsletter on the region aimed at investors, diplomats
and security officials. “Everything was very secret, and that secrecy
was imported into the FLN [the leading political party], the army and
the intelligence services.”
Vish Sakthivel, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,
says that secrecy fortifies Algeria’s deep state and shields it from
critique. The theory is: “Stay out of the forefront of people’s minds,
and if bad things happen, then Bouteflika can take the blame.”
There is probably a lot to be blamed for. In addition to political repression and economic discontent
— some 70 percent of Algeria’s population is under the age of 30, and
many are unemployed — there is also a critique that the state isn’t
doing enough to ward off Islamists.
The In Amenas hostage crisis of
January took the regime by surprise and showed Algerians that le Pouvoir
wasn’t as savvy as it had claimed. The regime’s reaction was swift,
blunt and brutal. At least 38 hostages and 29 Islamist militants were killed along the way.
revolutions throughout the region in recent years, Algeria remains
stable largely because of public spending, analysts say. And the country
has some $200 billion in oil and gas reserves, which can go a long way
toward forestalling revolution.
But le Pouvoir
is so old that it is nearly decrepit, and with elections due in 2014,
there are serious questions about what will happen next in Algeria. Last
month, after returning from medical treatment in France, Bouteflika shook up the DRS, taking much of le Pouvoir away from Toufik and resettling it with the military.
Algeria watchers are not quite sure what to make of the move.
told me this would happen two months ago, I’d have said it’d be
impossible — but it literally happened with the stroke of a pen,” says
Jeremy Keenan, a professor at London’s School of Oriental and African
Studies and an expert on the region. He says that it’s one of the
biggest political shake-ups in the region, but that it’s hard to tell
why it’s happening. “In my view, there’s nothing left to the DRS other
than its name,” says Keenan. “With the result that Mediène is left with
nothing.” Keenan also says he has heard from two independent and reliable sources that Mediène is in a Swiss hospital.
points up another theory as to why Toufik’s face is a state secret: He
doesn’t want the world to know how old he is. “It’s good to be old, but
it’s important to appear youthful and able,” says Sakthivel. The regime
is often accused of being a gerontocracy, and Algerians are wont to
opine what might happen when the country’s leaders finally die off. “And
they don’t want people to have those conversations,” she says.