Why you should care
Because there’s little better than knowing what you’re not supposed to know.
Of late, OZY’s been lucky enough to have its own spy chief: John McLaughlin, retired deputy director of the CIA. McLaughlin has delivered delicious insight into some of the darkest corners of the earth, and the United States, too.
The NSA surveillance debate has been at center stage for about four months now and shows no sign of abating, with Edward Snowden-derived leaks continuing to appear on at least a weekly basis. McLaughlin asserts that, based on his personal dealings with NSA over many years, the agency is truly not interested in our personal lives — that kind of data is the province of Google, Amazon, Facebook and other organizations that want to understand our habits in order to sell us something.
The NSA wants only to figure out whether any phone numbers or Internet accounts associated with terrorists are trying to contact supporters who may be in the United States. OZY readers may or not be convinced of this, he writes, but for now let’s think about a few things not in the headlines that probably should preoccupy us more than the NSA over the long term. According to McLaughlin, they’re doozy enough: population pressures, al-Qaida consolidating territory, cyberattacks, unsecured nuclear material and water shortages.
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.
Toufik may be the longest serving spy chief in the world, and he may be one of the keys to why an Arab Spring didn’t reach Algeria. (Another reason: billions of dollars in gas reserves, because public spending goes a long way toward forestalling unrest.) But his throne’s been shaking, first because of the El Arenas hostage incident early in 2013, and also because, well, a gerontocracy has to die off sometime.
When the Arab revolutions were in their early stages — primarily in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — hope ran high that a wave of democratic reform would wash across the region. Events kicked off with the Tunisian revolt in late 2010 and crested in Egypt’s Tahrir Square with the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship in early 2011. These revolutions were unique in modern Arab history for two reasons: First, they were internally and spontaneously generated, and second, they were about universal values and aspirations – a desire for freedom, democratic representation, educational opportunity and decent jobs.
But the aftermath was mixed at best. Democracy never comes easy. So what does that mean for Arab countries that managed to avoid revolutionary turmoil — specifically Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia? Given that most Middle East certainties have been blown away in the last two years, predictions are perilous, but McLaughlin takes take a stab at it. He notes that all those governments have been sobered by what they’ve seen elsewhere and they have taken steps to head off or blunt similar demands. Moreover, many of the discontented groups in these societies are probably off balance and divided over strategy in light of what’s happened in Egypt.