Another, Weirder Way of Thinking about Re-Organizations

This past autumn saw the rise of a narrative of a resurgent Bouteflika clan, perhaps reacting to two or more years of investigation and depredation by the deep state; the most recent posts on this site have dealt with this subject from a narrative standpoint as these events were reported in prominent Algerian media outlets. The ‘dismemberment’ of the Algerian security services, the DRS and its numerous sub-organs, looked to strengthen the Presidential camp by reorganizing its org chart, moving this department to the Interior Ministry; that directorate to the Defense Ministry proper; this other activity to the Presidency. The second ranking officer in the DRS — Mhenna Djebbar — was dismissed earlier this week (supposedly with other DRS chiefs); a move that fits well in the narrative of a resurgent Bouteflika clan moving to arrange a favorable line up ahead of elections in which the President or some successor will carry on the flame and whatever it stand for. On the face of it, this all looks debilitating, placing the DRS closer to the paws of its spooky doyen’s great rivals. This is how it was presented in most places and many informed people believed or believe this to be the gist of what has happened. Those who have spent some time exploring Algerian politics under Bouteflika often have difficulty accepting this; it does not carry on easily from the presumed anchoring in Algeria’s power politics for sometime vis-a-vis the President and the DRS. It makes the DRS look weak where it has previously been assumed to be strong. Sometimes it is worthwhile to explore other possibilities on a theoretical level for the sake of working out a bigger picture. Some will dismiss this as a useless exercise in conspiracy theorizing.

Recent events force the analyst’s mind to wonder and ask: What if those who look weak are strong and those who look strong are weak? 

Previously this blogger noted a variety of possible ways of thinking about the evolving situation (and he remains non-committal on any viewpoint).

‘One interpretation would see this as a near ultimate move to check Tewfik and other (lesser) rivals. Another would see this as pantomime or a move meant to give exactly this impression during a time of serious crisis, if not decline for the Bouteflika clan or an improvised reaction to be pined against the wall.’

To repeat: The idea that the reorganization of the Algerian services heralds the greatest change the country has seen in a decade or more clashes violently with what many analysts believe has been the balance of power in Algerian domestic politics, either before the third term or after. It is worth exploring as many possible variations of what the reshuffle might mean, perhaps even at risk of causing confusion, so as to try to understand it as much as possible as an observer. Others may disagree. And it is worth saying: all this is based on speculation and rumor and ingested press reports and conservations and so on.

Some Algerians and others look at this from a different vantage point than the one widely reported. What at first glance might make the DRS look weaker may in fact be what makes it stronger and its strength more sustainable. Moving offices around — with the same staff and the protégés of its historic leaders may be more like a blood transfusion than an amputation. After all, the cliché that one ought to keep his friends close and his enemies closer is a rule by which many people do actually live.

An El Watan piece from the period immediately after the reorganization was first reported quoted senior officers downplaying the political implications of the reforms and arguing that they had little meaning as far as DRS bodies being moved to the authority of the regular military, since the DRS has always been an organization attached to the general staff and Ministry of Defense. Algeria has a regime of men and networks; El Watan warned that the weakening of the DRS as an organization, an formal institution does not as such weaken le pouvoir, Algeria’s ‘deep state’ believed by many to be dominated by a series of clans and coalitions loyal to, entangled by or otherwise under the influence of the chief of the DRS, Gen. Mohamed ‘Tewfik’ Mediene. Algeria’s regime survives because it is adaptable and its elites more than capable of leveraging particular problem sets through rent distribution or clientelism or repression, as corrupt or sclerotic or repressive as it can be it is not ‘incompetent’ in any conventional sense as it has built a set up perceptions in large parts of the population that increase or reinforce its ability to rule. And in settings as layered as Algerian politics there is of course some element of the ‘system’ taking on some life of its own amid confusion and uncertainty which can be stabilizing or destabilizing. And the Algerian services are nothing if not long-term planners, strategists of a rather ruthless kind. It is always worth remembering that nothing lasts forever and everything can change in place at more or less anytime; and what seems right can be wrong and the reverse.

There is much that is unknown, as always. Where did the initiative for the ‘reform’ of the services originate? With the general staff? The Bouteflika family/clan? The DRS? In the minds of Tewfik-aligned political circles? Some reports have cited a government white paper on the In Amenas crisis as the basis for the restructuring of the security sector generally, to address problems of inter-service communication, intelligence collection and analysis and to iron out operational roles and prerogatives. From this standpoint the push could have come from the very top of the State or from any part of the high command and the intentions could come in a large number of permutations or variants. It makes one consider, does Algeria have the ‘black cabinet’ that used to be talked about by dissidents and some political types? From whose brain do strategic decisions of this magnitude originate? How are they pitched and sold to leadership? As usual observers of Algerian politics are left the same kings of questions and follow on questions as they are on so many other things.

So think of the possibilities: Rearranging domestic and foreign intelligence bodies so that they operate alongside, subordinate to or inside of the offices and chains of command of the presumed political rivals of their [now presumably former] masters of the networks at the heart of the ‘deep state’ potentially serves multiple purposes.

Consider the rising prominence of the DRS in public sphere narratives in Algeria and internationally.

  • The DRS has received ample attention in local Algerian and foreign press in the last 10 years. Over time it has been increasingly common for Algerian press report to write about ‘Les services,’ ‘DRS,’ ‘Tewfik/Toufik,’ and similar  key words, whether positively or negatively or dispassionately. Such coverage has become less and less taboo since 1999. Coverage in the international press is also common with former DRS officers, often critical writing and appearing on social media sites, foreign news channels and the like. Al Jazeera, France 3, France24, and even filmmakers in New Zealand and others have run quite critical pieces about or related to the Algerian security services in the ‘Dirty War’ and in politics under Bouteflika (often based on testimony from former security men themselves). This is also true on popular news websites and in books written by Algerian authors such as Mohamed Sifaoui. In some cases these brought up the DRS’s role in the killing of the French monks during the Civil War or gave voice to dissidents that portrayed the DRS quite negatively. Others include feature articles in promotional magazines aimed at foreign and Algerian business audiences that proudly display the history of the DRS from the days of the revolutionary MALG as one of glorious struggle and nation building and hagiographic documentaries. (This speaks to a desire to improve impression of the organization. Such features may be related to points raised in bullet three below.) Furthermore, international coverage of the DRS after and in relation to the In Amenas incident has been generally negative. The whole style of the affair on the Algerian side seems to have caused embarrassment, as many in the outside world held up the service as emblematic of problems with Algeria’s security sector and decision-making apparatus in general. As mentioned in a previous post, regional outlets (as well as El Watan earlier this month) have noted the existence of a recognized desire on the part of the Algerian authorities and foreign partners to see In Amenas and potentially other incidents as a result of cultural-structural issues (coup-proofing) in the Algerian security apparatus that may be similar to those in neighboring countries where real security services still exist (things likeWe don’t talk to those who don’t share with those who only speak with this officer under these conditions because during X circumstances only so-and-so is responsible for carrying Y unless this other thing is present in which case only that other guy has total control over whatever he deems fit). According to a report from the mid-autumn in Jeune Afrique a whole government report was written on this issue.
  • There are major risks in a high profile especially in an authoritarian regime structure in a regional environment of crisis and change. With additional coverage has come a refinement of critical popular discourse in terms of fleshing out political or other grievances toward le pouvoir and similar political concepts in Algerian society. In some cases this has meant a displacement of outrage or the direction of frustration away from the President, seen as a puppet of or junior partner of the headmen in the DRS, the seen as the ‘real’ power behind the scenes in the country. Despite efforts to increase the personal prestige of the Presidency as well as his freedom of action and authority over the security sector, the narrative of a dualist struggle between the president and the DRS has not abetted and the Bouteflikas do not appear to have overpowered their rivals. Popular belief in the strength of the DRS as the backbone of the regime and the centre of the pouvoir has also meant that during demonstrations as in February 2011, when small groups of Algerians sought to emulate their Tunisian cousins in an ‘Arab Spring’ like exercise placards condemning ‘le system’ and ‘an-Nizham’ often did not bear the image of Bouteflika (though such images were present); they bore a caricature of the sole known image of Gen. Tewfik so as to say: to make change it is the regime-inside-the-regime that must change. Bouteflika is for now but le system is forever, or something like it. Genuine good feeling or reverence for Bouteflika –often called avuncular or grandfatherly, ‘the old man’ – helps to ward of the rise of some particular focus for mass rage at the Algerian regime. Yet the DRS seems to have come under threat of developing into that symbol since 2011. Few secret services relish the idea of being or risking being the subject noun in popular slogans (at least ones chanted by crowds they cannot control).
  • The DRS’s power has been on deliberate display in regime politics. Because of its prominent role in international investigations into corruption in the Bouteflika entourage, the DRS has taken on a much more public role in high politics in the last several years. This would seem to run counter to the assumption that as a secret intelligence service the DRS would want to remain out of the spotlight and downplay its role in events. But as has been speculated on this blog and in many other places there is a always some element the affectation of black magic in the public presentation of security services, small or big things done to make their adversaries more or less paranoid (depending on the situation), to strike fear into the heart of the general population or specific sub-groups while also remaining unseen and supposedly un-obstructive. The investigations show the wrath of the services but also play to a different narrative related to the one in the bullet above: the DRS fights corruption and wants modernization. One sees this in press interviews with former officers who describe the DRS as seeking to modernize the state, fight corruption (which the Bouteflikas thrive on, they say), improve the security sector and do all those things which citizens did wish the Algerian state would do. It offers something of a ‘good cop’ to what many Algerians and foreigners believe about the role of the DRS in politics and economy as a source or general manager of corruption and vice for its own ends. These messages have often been relayed to foreigners as well as others since no later than the mid-2000s. Conspicuous displays of power are dangerous: they risk alienating populations or inciting extreme reactions. The DRS and the Algerian as a whole has been much more adept at not inviting its own destruction while other regimes led by gaudier and more vulgar types burned themselves by speaking loudly and committing massacres or desecrating children’s corpses and insulting their parents. Yet during the crisis in In Amenas and Bouteflika’s hospitalization the DRS came into focus. The Presidency said little and because it was so widely know or believed to be know that the DRS and its protégés were the other center of power it was reasonable to look to them as the source of action. And if the DRS were to be seen to be running the whole show (as one person opined on Twitter lately, Algeria is like Russia if the KGB ran the country) this would put it in a hard position and increase its vulnerability in case of any sort of organized popular rumbling or otherwise, though the appetite of the Algerian population or political class as of now looks rather limited, generally speaking, especially after others in the region succeeded in making such things look quite bad.

Mystics sometimes say things like: To reach the greatest thing of all, the One, you must release yourself from all of your possessions. Perhaps someone in the Algerian regime has thought: for the DRS to have true power, to protect itself and to undermine its rivals it must give away its departments and its activities and offices and make itself everywhere. Or even more basely: Let them all believe that the DRS is not at the centre of power, that the Bouteflikas are in control and are responsible for whatever errors or troubles that may come around. And make the election in 2014 a referendum of Bouteflikas and on people who want another term in a country that wants something new or something to believe in. This perspective does have contradictions (hopefully obvious above) and very easily may give too much to stomach sentiments versus  things being observed in the open per se. Nonetheless in a region as volatile as the greater Maghreb has become, it can be advantageous to look less powerful than one really is.

It also makes the Presidency look poorly: an aged President, weak and recently quite ill, consolidating himself over a political rival, seemingly at any cost. The images of Bouteflika look sickly and moribund encourage the consideration of alternative candidates for President, especially younger candidates and potential candidates like Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal (who travels round quite a bit) or Ali Benflis (who is younger only relatively in terms of numeric age than several top politicians, though he can be considered younger to some extent in political terms; Benflis is close to 10 years older than Sellal and others; he possesses energy and projects sentiment much more so than Sellal  (who can be boring) or the current Bouteflika (though not the vintage Bouteflika who was extremely charismatic and aggressive in public speaking; he also has the benefit of having been in a kind of internal political exile in the last ten years after being banished for having been the military candidate against Bouteflika in 2004 where he was known to Bouteflika skeptic FLN cadres and easterners but made few public appearances and bided his time). The rebound of Ali Benflis since 2012, for example, is something that confirms some biases for someone impacted by this perspective. If the DRS appears weak ahead of key presidential elections it might have multiple consequences: making candidates with possible connections to clans close to the DRS appear more sincere or more favorable; making said candidates look anachronistic; or even making Bouteflika (should he really run) look more like a symbol of cloudy cynicism than he has in the past. In any case it looks less likely that the President will even run at all in 2014 (the gaps between his speeches and public appearances since 2011 have been enormous; and even certain variations of his popular personal soliloquies are rumored to have down to less than a half hour where they used to be much more), considering his widely publicized health issues and age; but there are always surprises in Algeria. As noted here before, will likely make use of new vice presidential surrogates if he does run. And most will have made up their minds as to the inevitability of one or another outcome ahead of time regardless.

All this is rough and the reverse of what has been discussed elsewhere on this blog and in many other places by smarter people but it is just a set of thoughts. For example, it is also possible that the reorganization represents some kind of symbolic effort to please external and internal audiences following hard times in 2013; the Algerians recognize the image problem they suffer from. Moving titles on the organime may serve to please audiences impatient with recent Algerian behavior; it may also make the machine look more responsive and resilient to stressers. Also keep in mind that generally reputable Algerian dailies reported that certain general staff members were due to retire only for said people to remain in place some time after (for example Achen Tafer was rumored to have retired in 2012; there was even supposed to be an item on this in the Journal Officiel; similarly there were many things reported about the military and security services that are not mentioned in any of the official Journaux meaning they were issued or recorded separately, in secret or by some other format if they did happen (in annexes?) and otherwise did not happen or did not happen officially). Several news reports recently have had top men retiring or being moved but little on this has been available since the autumn. The Ministry of National Defense did not appear to record some of these changes on its website in the meantime, and very little was said in El Djeich the initial round of changes in September-October.