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Picturing power (translation)

March 26, 2009
At least the pen is mightier than the camera.

Toufik, Bessaih, Gaid Saleh.

Below the fold you’ll find a translated piece from El Khabar (Feb. 28) about the aging Algerian elite, and how it shamelessly clings to power regardless of ideological and political shifts. It caught  my attention for its unusual public finger-pointing at Gen. Mohamed Médiène. “Toufiq”, as he’s called, has spent the last 18 years as head of the extraordinarily powerful DRS, but he’s very rarely mentioned and virtually never criticised in the media, as opposed to Pres. Bouteflika, who is thrashed more or less daily in the press. The article was accompanied by a drawing (seen above right) which is clearly made from the only picture that is known to exist of Médiène, originally published by a shady exile group. Sure, he was drawn alongside two others — but showing the readers what Médiène looks like was obviously the whole point of it (the image file was even called “caricature–toufik.jpg“).

Are Algerian newspapers starting to pick up courage, or is something interesting going on in election-times? Well, who knows, and why speculate (please speculate). The rest of the article was rather unremarkable, but it’s still a useful tour of some of the people now in charge — a greying bunch of stalwarts from the belly of the military-political beast.

Gaid Saleh, Toufiq, Bouteflika, Zerhouni, Ould Kablia and Bessaih

The policies have changed, but they remain in power

Independent Algeria started off with a youthful leadership, with ministers and officers that had not passed their thirties. But 50 years after the 5th of July, 1962, there is nothing left of this young leadership except a few photographs kept in the National Archives of these men, who, throughout their political career, seem to have avoided cameras except on rare occasions.

This was perhaps intentional, on the part of many among them. One is the leader of the Départment du renseignement et de la sécurité, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Médiène, known as Toufiq. Of this Mujahid [liberation war veteran] and officer in the Armée nationale populaire, there exists but one single photograph. It shows a man who has not passed his forties.  Perhaps such photos have helped to entrench the description of Algeria as a “young nation”, as it has been dubbed since the days of Mustafa ben Boulaid, Larbi ben Mhidi, Didouche Mourad, and others among the youths who stood in the path of the giants of the French army.

But General Toufiq today, he’s a man who has spent no less than 50 years in the ranks of the army, including the era of the liberation revolution. This means that if he was the very youngest of the Mujahidin, he would still be around 70 years old today. The same applies to the Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh, who joined the armed struggle in 1956, and who remains in service 53 years later. One recalls that Algerian military law limits the period of work in the army to 25 years, and that many officers who joined the military establishment after independence have already been sent into retirement. There are Algerians who have performed their national duty, who today sit telling their grandchildren stories of when, once upon a time, they saw or met Gaid Saleh or Guenaïza or Toufiq…

While these officers have remained in service all these years, the defense policies of Algeria has changed more than once – indeed, it, at times, it has leapt from one extreme to the other. For example, there is the move from a principle of non-alignment to military leaders now cooperating fully with US forces and NATO, all the while giving them concessions and guarantees.

What goes for the military establishment also applies to the civilian institutions, prime among them the presidency of the republic. Bouteflika became a minister for the first time in his twenties, in the beginning of our independence, and acceeded to the office of head of state at the age of 62. He is  now the dean of Arab, African and Third World presidents, with almost no one surpassing his stay in power except Hosni Mubarak and  Qadhafi. And this despite how everything has changed in Algeria, starting with its people – where only a few remain of Bouteflikas generation – and ending with the political discourse, that no longer speaks of anything but freedom, democracy and foreign investment… These days, Bouteflika is getting ready to inaugurate a new political discourse in Algeria –  that of “economical nationalism”, after he and his predecessors have spent both socialism and market economy.

Speaking of the civilian state institutions, one cannot ignore the Ministry of Interior. It is one of the pillars of the regime, due to its far-reaching capacity to suppress or allow public freedoms, and to determine the professional future of Algerians, and their safety and property. While it is no longer possible to run public security by baton-wielding police, as was the case in the 70s, the main responsible for the Ministry of Interior still belongs to the same generation that controls the military establishment and the presidency. Like Bouteflika, Yazid Zerhouni is born in 1937, in Tlemcen, and he returned to high office with Bouteflika’s comeback. He never stops talking about modernizing his services and administration. To accomplish that he has delegated the task of reforming the administration and local groups to another comrade of the same post-independence group, Dahou ould Kablia, who is more often referred to in the media as a veteran of [the DRS predecessor] MALG (Le Ministère de l’armement et des liaisons générales), than as a functionary in state institutions.

There is one more instituion. It [the Constitutional Council] has an advisory role, but functions as an issuer of fatwas in legislative life, given that it can determine whether a law is compatible with the constitution or not, before it can take effect. Despite the many changes that the Algerian legal system has seen, in all fields – from traffic law to the constitution itself – the mufti of constitutionality remains a man who has lived through all ages of Algerian parliamentary life, and all its upheavals from right to left – Mr. Boualem Bessaih, born in 1930 in el-Bayadh.

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