Lieutenant-General Mohamed Mediene, aka "Toufik," is the most powerful man in Algeria with a security apparatus of over 100,000 agents. Yet with no official picture of him ever made public, Algerians have no idea what this shadowy leader even looks like.
Indisputably, 73 year-old Lieutenant-General Mohamed Lamine Médiène is now the most powerful man in Algeria. Since 1990 he has headed the sprawling DRS (a French acronym for “Intelligence and Security Directorate”), Algeria’s secret service. Five presidents of the republic have come and gone, yet Médiène - known by his alias “Toufik” - remains, seemingly irremovable. Due his professional longevity, Toufik has been compared to John Edgar Hoover, the legendary FBI director. But today’s Algerian Hoover has more power than his American predecessor ever did. Imagine Hoover with control over the FBI and at the same time the CIA, NSA, and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)!
The centralized DRS, in the hands of its boss Toufik, works as the core processor of “the power” or "le pouvoir", the cryptic term Algerians use to designate the military nomenklatura who run the country. The system remains difficult to decipher, even for the most discerning connoisseurs of Algeria. The best way to describe how "le pouvoir" operates is to compare it to a chess game. As its public head, President of the Republic Abdelaziz Bouteflika stands at the center of media attention. Yet he is not the one who has the greatest operational capability. Like the king of the chessboard, Bouteflika’s strength lies in the coordination of other pieces on the chessboard rather than his sole, intrinsic ability to change the course of the game. But make no mistake: the president is not a puppet—like a king is not a pawn. To officially serve the presidential king, a team of senior official as knights, bishops of exacerbated nationalism, security rooks... and an omnipresent and omnipotent queen. Here is Lt-General Toufik.
Eminence grise of “le pouvoir” for over twenty years, Toufik has been close to the inner system for over half a century, since Algeria’s independence struggle. Yet despite decades at the center of power, his personality and career remain shrouded by a dense fog. For one, he does not even have a public face. Four or five pictures of him circulate widely and wildly on the Internet - with a significant problem. Close examination of the facial features reveals that the photos are of several different people, including two different officials photographed at the same ceremony. Which is Toufik? No one can say with certainty or hard proof.
Finding Toufik has become a Where's Waldo-type game: whenever a film or an archive emerges and an unknown face is seen among senior officials, the Algerian blogosphere hastens to declare it a new Toufik face. The rumor, according journalist Chawki Amari, is that the Lt-General "always receives people in his office with his back turned - if you see his face, this is the last time you see someone in your life."
Such "Darth Vader" (1) behavior contributes greatly to the legend that surrounds Toufik.
Ship’s Boy in the Merchant Navy
Journalist Mohamed Sifaoui offered the most credible investigation on the career of Toufik (2). He wrote that Mohamed Médiène was born in a Kabyle family in 1939 in Timezrit (in the district of Boumerdes). His family moved to Algiers, where the young Médiène grew up. As a teenager, he did various small jobs before being hired as ship’s boy in the French merchant navy. He was serving at sea in 1954 when Algeria’s “War of Liberation” broke out against French colonialism.
In 1957, when his boat docked in a Libyan port, Médiène disembarked for an unexpected new life, joining the nationalist movement led by the National Liberation Front (FLN). In Tunisia, he received military training at the age of 18 years before being assigned to a combat unit on the Algerian-Tunisian border. According Sifaoui, his role was to facilitate the passage of weapons and fighters into Algerian territory. In this capacity he met Khaled Nezzar, a future feneral and Minister of Defense; Chadli, a future president; as well as many senior leaders of independent Algeria.