Algerian Islamism. The Big Split
Ghania Khelifi - 28/09/2012
For these legislative elections, the well-established or new Islamist parties are strongly mobilised and attempt to silence their dissent to realise their big dream: achieve parliamentary majority. In early March, three of them, the MSP (Movement of Society for Peace), El Islah and En Nahda, have announced their Green Alliance[i] that would result in joint lists of candidates. With a significant popular support, these three political parties represent the “soft” Algerian Islamism after the failure of the radical Islamism of the ex FIS[ii] (Islamic Salvation Front)[iii]. Dissolved in 1992, the party was the winner of the elections held the same year but had not managed to channel its radical activists who responded with weapons to the authority’s decision to suspend the electoral process.
The 15 years of violence that followed and the policy of national reconciliation that allowed armed Islamists to be rehabilitated (the repentant ones), were the final blow for the FIS and its historical leaders. Yet, Islamism has continued to grow in Algerian society that has become increasingly receptive to Salafism (a trend inspired from Saudi Wahhabism) and its preachers. The practices of this rigorous Islamism are dominant while paradoxically, Islamist parties struggle to recruit and mobilise youth.
Like other members of the Islamist movement, the members of the Green Alliance are increasingly uncomfortable in this institutional Islamism’s costume because they have to convince their established partisans of their loyalty to Islamic values while providing a government ready to prevent and manipulate. Their “entryist” strategy has certainly paid off (43 Islah deputies and 38 ones representing the Movement of Society for Peace, were elected in 2007) even if they had to show their credentials to power. The MSP has joined Bouteflika’s presidential alliance together with the National Rally for Democracy[iv] and the National Liberation Front[v], the two backbone political groups of the system. Forced to support the decisions and edicts of the government such as the constitutional amendment allowing the president to seek a third term of office, the Algerian Islamists are now developing a democratic discourse, even if it is inspired from Islamist values, in order to reassure public opinion and military decision makers.
In their electoral campaign mass meetings, the Green Alliance representatives repeat that they are an alternative to the present government thanks to their “reform program aiming to struggle against the negative phenomena including unemployment, the housing crisis, injustice and corruption that have plagued Algeria during the past 50 years.” They call for the “reaffirmation of the Republican state, a democratic system based on pluralism and the establishment of a unicameral parliamentary system.” This smoke blown in President Bouteflika’s face does not necessarily rid the party of the “participationist” label it has with regards to its relationship with the government. The corruption scandals involving MSP ministers did not help to fix things. According to a survey carried out by an American team for the Arab Barometer, 84.5% of Algerians are not interested in politics and 52% of them mistrust politics. Moreover, all experts forecast a participation rate that will not exceed 28% in the 10th May elections even if they are supervised by international observers.
The government uses this fear of abstention to disqualify its Islamist opponents, appropriating unscrupulously the emotional trauma of the 1990’s civil war. The Prime Minister, leader of the National Rally for Democracy has urged voters to vote if they do not want to “find themselves wearing the kameez (Islamic garment) and a beard”. During a mass meeting held on the 23rd April 2012, the Prime Minister directly attacked the Green Alliance when he stated, “Algeria is neither Tunisia nor Morocco. Do those counting on a Green progress have anything to propose?” The same Ahmed Ouyahia attacks the Arab Spring describing it as “a wind that blows in all directions, a wind coming from the East and the West that is called spring! I would rather call it winter”. Known as a man close to the Algerian generals, the Prime Minister seems to be unaware that the Islamist scarecrow in a Ben Laden or FIS version is not enough to convince the Algerians to vote…the same Algerians who aspire to change the system and get rid of figures like him.
Disillusioned by the Islamist parties and by the government, the population is not ready to resume the path of the revolution and confrontation but would like to choose freely their representatives. They aspire for a regime following the Turkish model or at least the image they have of it. They want an Islamism that does not restrict freedom but that respects democratic and Islamist principles at the same time. If the government decided to abandon its fraud practices, it is quite unlikely that the Algerians would have the opportunity to test Islamist parties because the presumption of voter fraud is so strong that the majority find it useless to play the game of the polls.
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech
[ii] Front du Salut Islamique