ALGIERS, Algeria, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- The leader of the dominant National Liberation Front has publicly attacked the country's powerful intelligence chief and demanded he step down in what's seen as the opening salvo of what could be a fiery presidential election scheduled for April 17.
NLF head Amar Saidani's target was Maj. Gen. Mohamed "Tewfik" Mediene, long-serving director of the secretive and widely feared Department of Intelligence and Security, known by the French acronym DRS.
Saidani is a close associate of President Abdulaziz Boutelfika, who was endorsed by the NLF to be its candidate in April, with Bouteflika primed to run for an unprecedented fourth five-year term even though he's 76 and in poor health after a stroke in April.
Saidani's widely considered to be a possible vice president if Bouteflika is re-elected.
The broadside against Mediene, Bouteflika's longtime opponent, signaled that the election is likely to be something of a showdown in the power struggle between the two elderly protagonists. Mediene is not running himself, but whoever he backs will be the Bouteflika camp's main challenger.
Saidani, a former speaker of the National People's Assembly, was elected secretary-general of the NLF in September. His only opponent stepped down before the vote. As party chief, Saidani will play a crucial role in Bouteflika's campaign if he throws his hat in the ring.
Bouteflika has not declared whether he will actually run. He, or his backers, may decide that his age and poor health rule that out. But, as one of the few heroes of the 1965-62 independence war against France still living, he remains a seminal political figure.
Just "by giving the impression that he may do so, his camp gains a stronger position in negotiations on a successor, enabling them to better defend their political and economic interests in the post-Bouteflika period," the international geopolitical consulting firm Oxford Analytica noted.
Saidani in an interview with Algerian online news site Tout Sur L'Algerie accused Mediene of a string of intelligence failures since he took over the DRS in September 1990, which makes the shadowy general who is rarely seen in public, the world's longest-serving intelligence chief.
Saidani listed as examples the assassination of President Mohammed Boutiaf on July 29, 1992, soon after the start of a murderous, decade-long civil war with Islamists, the 1996 massacre of French monks, ostensibly by Islamists, and more recently the January 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas complex in southeastern Algeria by jihadist fighters in which 67 people were killed.
"After so many failures, Tewfik should resign," Saidani said.
The stakes are high in this oil-rich nation of 35 million. Algeria is the strongest military power in North Africa, a region ravaged by political turmoil and a growing al-Qaida presence from Egypt to Morocco.
Algeria is important in the global energy market. With about 160 trillion cubic feet of gas, it's the third-biggest gas producer after Qatar and Russia. It also has 12.2 billion barrels of oil reserves.
The election's likely to get dirty in a country awash with oil and gas money. Corruption is an issue, as it often is in a nation where the gap between rich and poor is wide.
Indeed, Mediene has been waging an anti-corruption campaign against Bouteflika and his allies for years, particularly targeting the state oil monopoly, Sonatrach, and forcing out close friends of Boutelfika, including Energy Minister Chakib Khelil.
That left Algeria's energy industry adrift amid the political upheaval sweeping the Arab world in 2011.
Accusations of corruption is a tactic that resonates in a country where youth unemployment is high, affordable housing is lacking and distribution of energy revenues is, to say the least, uneven and favors the elite.
Algeria is nominally a democracy with regular elections, but power is the preserve of the president, the generals and the DRS.
"The outcome of the elections will be decided through negotiations between the three main powers of the Algerian state -- the DRS, the military establishment and the senior figures in the FLN," Oxford Analytica observed.
"They will choose a candidate who can provide each faction with sufficient guarantees that their political and economic interests will be protected ... ."
The FLN, the party that led Algeria to victory in the 1954-62 independence war, "is the only political party with an electoral machine capable of mobilizing sufficient voters to provide a stamp of democratic legitimacy," Oxford Analytica noted.