Split blows open in Algeria ruling party as election looms

AFP , Saturday 8 Feb 2014

A split has blown open within Algeria's ruling party ahead of an April presidential election, after its leader accused the powerful intelligence chief of opposing the ailing incumbent's re-election.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power for 15 years, has yet to say if his health will permit him to stand for a fourth term following a mini-stroke that confined him to hospital in Paris for three months last year.

But ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) secretary general Amar Saidani has repeatedly backed a fourth term for the 76-year-old incumbent, even though he has not been seen or heard in public since his stroke.

Despite much-vaunted moves by Bouteflika to roll back the prerogatives of the military -- a hallmark of his presidency -- the army and its DRS intelligence agency retain much of the political power they have wielded ever since independence in 1962.

In an interview published this week, Saidani demanded that veteran DRS director Mohamed "Tewfik" Mediene step down, saying that his persistent interference in politics came at the detriment of security in the strategic North African country.

He accused the shadowy general, who has held his post since 1990 but never appears in public, of a string of security failures, including the military's handling of a hostage-taking at a desert gas plant by armed Islamists last year in which nearly 40 foreign workers died.

"Instead of managing the country's security, this department (the DRS) interferes with the activities of political parties, the judiciary and the press," Saidani said, in the first such open criticism of the veteran intelligence chief.

But his tirade drew condemnation from dissident members of the FLN, which has been Algeria's leading party since independence except for a few years when the army dispensed with party politics altogether.

Abderahmane Belayat, who served as FLN interim leader from January last year until Saidani's controversial election in August, said the dissidents would no longer recognise his leadership of the party.

"Saidani's accusations targeted the army, the presidency, the judiciary and even the government even though we are the majority party which granted legitimacy to all these institutions. How he can accuse them of failing?" asked Belayat, whom Saidani accuses of being on the DRS payroll.

The Algerian press say the accusations levelled against Mediene, one of the hardline military leaders who cancelled a 1992 election which Islamists were poised to win sparking a bloody decade-long civil war, exposed opposition from the intelligence chief to Bouteflika's re-election.

"General Tewfik against a fouth term," read a front-page headline in El Khabar newspaper.

Like all of Algeria's leaders since independence, Bouteflika was chosen by the military to stand for the presidency in 1999.

But after his election, he insisted he would not be another puppet of the generals, famously saying: "I'm not three-quarters of a president."

In 2004, he succeeded in dismissing Mohamed Lamari, another powerful army chief who was a security hawk in the 1990s civil war and opposed Bouteflika's standing for a second term.

And the death in 2007 of General Smain Lamari, a close ally of Mediene, was thought to further strengthen Bouteflika's hand.

But he never neutralised Mediene, despite reportedly curtailing the intelligence agency's powers last year.

Three key units of the DRS -- the army communications bureau, its central security office and its judicial police force -- were placed under the control of General Ahmed Gaid Salah, a close Bouteflika ally, according to Algerian press reports that have not been denied.

The Algerian press portrayed the move as a bid by Bouteflika to head off any potential opposition from the DRS to his standing for re-election.

But in the murky world of Algerian politics, not everyone is convinced that the supposed rift between the president and the intelligence chief is real.

Some suspect that it is all part of a continuing charade to try to persuade voters that the president is his own man and not behoven to the military.

Analyst Abdelaali Rezagui said the whole debate was aimed at "making people believe there are differences between the president and the DRS but it is all just for show."

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