Why you should care
With a gerontocratic government and elections due by April 2014, Algeria could be poised for a major shake-up — with or without the shady spy known as “Toufik.”
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Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
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 president. No official photograph of Mediène has ever been made public. The pictures of him that do exist are few and blurry, and may be decades old. Rumor has it that Mediène receives visitors with his back turned, and that if you see his face, it’ll be the last one you ever see.
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.
Rumor has it that Mediène receives visitors with his back turned, and that if you see his face, it’ll be the last one you ever see.
Does 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.
But 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 infiltration techniques. 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.
Despite 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.
Longtime Algeria watchers are not quite sure what to make of the move. “If you’d 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.”
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.
Keenan also says he has heard from two independent and reliable sources that Mediène is in a Swiss hospital.
Which 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.