On 27 February 2012, WikiLeaks began publishing 5 million emails – called the Global Intelligence Files – from the American global intelligence company Stratfor, which has been providing intelligence to private companies as well as the US government. Many of the emails discuss a figure seldom talked about in the media, General Mohammed Mediene – also known as Toufik – who is nonetheless a key actor in Algerian politics. The head of the powerful Algerian secret services, Mediene is one of the most secretive public figures in Algeria: there are only two official photos of him, and during official ceremonies cameras systematically avoid his face. However, Mediene is considered to be the iron hand of the power, controlling the military and the intelligentsia. Stratfor paid close attention to his role and in particular his part in the minor protest movement that took off during the Arab Spring, as well as his relation to Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
How Stratfor tracked Mediene and the Algerian Arab Spring
On 9 February, 1992, shortly after the start of the civil war in December 1991, a state of emergency was declared in Algeria, which suspended many civil liberties for its citizens for the following two decades. Although the state of emergency forbade people from protesting, Algeria saw a “mild” Arab Spring starting at the end of December 2010, with protests over the increasing prices of primary goods and the issue of unemployment. Stratfor remained very attentive to this movement, although there were never more than 3000 protesters gathered in the streets. With the 1990 civil war in mind, the government was quick to respond: the state of emergency was ended on February 25th, 2011 as a concession to protesters, and social measures, such as a no-interest rate loan for students, were implemented. Meanwhile, all protests were declared illegal and Bouteflika mass-mobilized police forces to prevent them from propagating. Despite such moves by the government, strikes demanding more social measures were pursued until June 2011.
Beyond the movement in itself, which never reached the extent of the protests seen in Tunisia, Egypt and later on in Libya, what interested Stratfor was how the it became yet another object of conflict between President Bouteflika and the head of the secret services, Mediene. The latter was in fact suspected of participating in stirring up protests to destabilize the regime, as the main organizer of the movement was Saeed Sadi, a Berber activist and friend of Mediene.
In February 2011, Stratfor sent an “intelligence guidance” to its team of analysts. The email raised a series of specific questions about the current state of countries including Israel, China, Iran and Iraq, as well as international issues, such as food supply. Analysts were therefore requested to address those questions when investigating and publishing reports. Egypt was the main concern, but Algeria was nevertheless carefully watched over. Nate Hughes, who sent the email, reminded analysts that “the situation in Algeria bears close watching.”
Hughes pointed out how the protests could be used for political purposes by the ever-divided power: “the civil unrest could be exploited by members within the ruling elite. Specifically, we are keeping an eye on the motives of military intelligence chief Gen. Toufik Mediene, who appears to be locked into a succession battle with the president.” Analysts were also told to “monitor closely the size and scope of the demonstrations along with the internal regime battle,” as the civil unrest and the conflict between Mediene and President Bouteflika could be “inter-linked.” Moreover, while the focus was on asking Stratfor’s analysts to define Mediene’s power, Hughes also asked about any information concerning demonstration leaders’ identities.
Another email from February 2011 shows an interest in Mediene’s health. The email claims Mediene was experiencing serious health issues and would likely experience an imminent death. The sources also suggested the real conflict within the ruling elite was not between Mediene and president Bouteflika, but between Mediene and Bouteflika’s brother Saeed. Described as an omnipotent figure of the regime, Saeed was said to await Mediene’s death to acquire more power.
Here again, the link between the protests and the conflicting elites is stressed. The source claimed that Saeed Bouteflika convinced the trade unions to dissociate themselves from the protest movements. This move was to be perceived as a victory, thus pointing to the part Mediene may have played in stirring the protests.
Using the media to assist their clients, the work of Strafor’s analysts
Stratfor’s clients also expressed an interest in the situation in Algeria for their own purposes. On February 22nd, Reva Bhalla sent an email inquiring about the situation in Oran and potential risks for a client involved with the Algerian army.
“A client is considering sending an employee in the area outside of the city to do some work on behalf of the Algerian military and would have a military escort. Is there a strong anti-military/regime sentiment like what we have seen in Libya with army personnel being attacked and even killed? Does being affiliated with the military at this time heighten the threat level in any way?”
While the answer given by analysts was that the situation was safe enough, considering the protests had been rather contained and focused on ending of the state of emergency, the conversation again turned to the ambiguous role played by Mediene, with a member of staff asking: “Is there a possibility that certain elements in the military, including those working on such escorts as the client would be using, could side with Mediene and do something to jeopardize the client’s safety?”
Stratfor’s work in keeping track of Mediene also helps us understand the way the intelligence company works. Indeed, a lot of their work relies on what they read in local and national media, as shown in this email. Articles from the online magazine Tout Sur l’Algérie are here used to confirm the narrative outlined by Stratfor analysts. Based on those articles, they also give advice on keeping track of Mouloud Hamrouche and Ali Benflis, two politicians whom the newspaper claimed might be considered as a likely succession to Bouteflicka. Another email also mentions that the ties between protest leader Saeed Sadi and Mediene were first revealed in WikiLeaks cables.
Mediene and Bouteflika, the dying enemies who rule Algeria
The relationship between Bouteflicka, in power since 1999, and Mediene, head of the Military Intelligence and Security Directorate and (also referred to as DRS) since 1990, was in fact central in analysis of the Algerian political life. In a report published by Stratfor from February 2011, Mediene is described as a figure whose support is essential to succeed among the Algerian elite, even though he is now too old to ever become president.
According to Stratfor analysts, Bouteflicka asserted his legitimacy by reducing armed forces in politics and offering amnesty to a number of Islamic radicals. Mediene also claims his legitimacy from his key role in containing the Islamic threat, while his ties to AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) remain nonetheless obscure.
The same report describes the relationship between the two men as more agitated than ever during the eighteen months preceding the Arab Spring, as both started thinking about their successors. Saeed Bouteflicka, the president’s brother, sees himself as a potential successor to Mediene, hence the suggestion evoked by sources that the real conflict is between these two men. Mediene tried to reaffirm his position by “punishing” the Bouteflika camp: a number of high-profile members of the regime, close to the President and his brother, have therefore been accused of corruption and the minister of energy, Chekib Khelil, was forced to resign. The report further suggests that while the talks of succession have now been left aside, the murder of police head Ali Tounsi in February 2010 was yet another sign of the unresolved succession conflict.
Those accusations of corruption are, according to Jeremy Keenan, professor of anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, a common protocol for the secret services: “The DRS controls the country, or what is best now described as a ‘mafiosi’ state, and does so through a combination of ‘fear’, ‘terror’ and ‘blackmail’ – financial, sexual or whatever. As Sid Ahmed Ghozali, the former Prime Minister, said recently, and perhaps speaking metaphorically, the DRS has 2 million informants! It has files and keeps tabs on everybody, from the President and Chief of the Army to the lowest fonctionnaire (state employee).”
Mediene’s part in the Arab Spring
Most of the emails concerning Mediene date back from the Arab Spring, as Stratfor analysts anticipated a potential burst of civil unrest. Yet, they noticed that while protests in Egypt and Tunisia addressed the global issue of social justice, the ones in Algeria focused on lifting the state of emergency that had been in place since 1992. The analysts insist on the political motivations behind the movement. One of the leaders was indeed Saeed Sadi, a Berber activist from the National Coordination for Change and Democracy and Algeria’s League for Human Rights, a friend of Mediene, who is also a Berber and hence benefits from the support of his community.
But Bouteflika turned out the big winner of the protest movements: by agreeing to the protesters’ demands he appeared to be a somewhat democratic leader willing to compromise. At the same time he reduced the influence of the Military Directorate of Intelligence and Security led by Mediene. Indeed, the state of emergency had allowed the secret services to control Algerian society: citizens could be put under provisory detention at random and military forces were used by civilian authorities. Thus analysts suggest that by putting an end to the state of emergency, Bouteflika was protecting himself from Mediene as much as Algerian civilians.
Stratfor analysts also recall that, in his statement announcing the end of the state of emergency, Bouteflika announced that counter-terrorism and counter-subversion would no longer be the shared responsibility of the National People’s Army (controlled by Bouteflika) and the Military Directorate of Intelligence and Security and would become the sole responsibility of the NPA.
The release of Stratfor’s emails on Mediene constitute the most in-depth account on Algerian political elites to date, as the head of the secret services has always relied on secrecy, taking pains to prevent any journalistic coverage of its operations. Stratfor thus provides a reliable and updated description of the conflict between Bouteflika and Mediene and their fight to assert their successors. They also provide a new outlook with which to view the Arab Spring as an opportunity for both Mediene and Bouteflika to rearrange the structure of power at the head of the country.
Read about the US government’s take on Mediene in the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks: