360° Analysis

Islamist Prospects in Algeria


January 14, 2012 02:52 EDT

Do Algeria’s Islamists stand to gain in the Arab world's ongoing political upheaval?

The 2011 Arab uprisings have made way for elections in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. In all these polls, Islamist parties—some long banned under the old dictatorships—performed best. These elections were free, fair and came after autocratic governments were overthrown or pressed into major reform processes by active protest movements.

Algeria, though, did not develop a cohesive protest movement capable of regime change, nor one able to push the government into making reforms that would pave the way for structural changes to the process of elections. Predictably, Algeria’s scheduled elections for May 2012 have aroused the interest of the country's legal Islamist parties, whose leaders have speculated they will profit from the success of other Islamist movements in the region and a popular desire for political change.

Given the Algerian government’s and Islamist movement’s posture, Algeria does not appear destined for the Islamist sweep its neighbours have witnessed unless a broad system change is achieved through robust reform.

The Algerian Political Scene in 2011, and Its Origins

When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a populist coalition of conservative factions, was poised to win Algeria’s first democratic elections the military intervened in a 1991 military coup and cancelled the second round of voting, plunging the country into a vicious, decade-long civil war between the Army and Islamist militants that left more than 100,000 people dead. The FIS’s political infrastructure was eviscerated and the government's legitimacy strongly sapped.

But not all of Algeria’s Islamists met the same fate as the FIS. More moderate and smaller Islamist parties who did poorly in the 1991 election, like the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood, the Harakat al-Mujtama’at as-Salim(Movement for a Society of Peace, MSP), and Abdallah Djaballah’s En-Nahdah Movement came out of the war as key mediators in the process of reconciliation between the regime and Islamist movements. These parties took an important role within the post-civil war regime, especially after parliamentary elections resumed in 1997.

Bouteflika’s Rise to Power: Fragmentation and Co-optation

The war effectively ended in 1999 with the rise of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and a series of reconciliation agreements between the government, Islamist movements, and armed groups.

The government’s reconciliation platform, crystallised in the 2004 Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, depended on the exclusion of the FIS from formal politics. Simultaneously, however, it allowed the post-war order to have a religious patina by giving minor Islamist parties a stake in the political process, which remains heavily dominated by the Army and security services.

The MSP has played a key role in this process. It held important and lucrative cabinet posts since 2004, such as public works and fisheries. Since 1997, these parties have faced internal fractures but did manage to take prominent roles in Parliament through their numbers, often having veto power on key votes. In the last few years, the MSP’s leadership has faced internal dissension, especially over the leadership style of its chairman since 2002, Boudjerra Soltani. His critics formed a break away bloc in Parliament in 2009.

Algeria’s Islamists have thus generally fallen into two broad trends over the last decade, those who were tamed and those who were broken by the regime.

The ban on the FIS is especially favoured by the military; but it benefits other Islamist groups by increasing their share in the political system (these parties were never national, mass movements like the FIS). The regime benefits from the division of power amongst various Islamist groups because it dilutes the power of any single religious party while still colouring the post-war order as characterized by a certain legitimate religious presence in politics.

The division of the Islamist constituency among two to three main legal parties, as well as many smaller ones, has allowed the larger parties of the establishment, the National Liberation Front (FLN) and National Rally for Democracy (RND), to play Islamist groups off of one another and maintain what many Algerians regard as a democratic facade.

This is a strategy not limited to Islamists. There are two or more formal political parties for any one ideological constituency or trend in Algeria including socialists, communists, the Berber minority, or secular nationalists. Algeria’s political opposition has thus remained fragmented and divided throughout the entire post-civil war period. Perhaps the greatest threat to this systemis that one major trend would emerge in the opposition, merging and focusing popular discontent with a transcendent, populist narrative as the FIS did in the early 1990s.

A Time for Confidence?

While Algeria has not seen a national movement aimed at toppling its regime as other Arab countries did in 2011, its leadership has been facing increasing demands for reform from the youth, students, and trade unions. Significantly, the victories of Islamist parties in the wake of the Arab uprisings have indeed injected a sense of confidence and even optimism into the cadres of Algeria’s legal Islamist parties. This should be viewed critically since analogies between the opposition Islamist parties in Tunisia or Egypt and the legal religious parties in Algeria are incomparable.

On January 1, Soltani announced the MSP's withdrawal from the coalition government saying 2012 would be a year of “competition…and not that of alliances,” and moreover, that the party disagreed with the ruling FLN and RND on the implementation of political reforms initiated in late 2011.In December, Soltani stated that the party saw Algerians increasingly prepared to be “ruled by an Islamic party.” He told Reuters, “the circumstances that have seen the birth of the government coalition in 2002 are over… We need to find new ways to do politics.”

The MSP’s leadership first floated the possibility of leaving the ruling coalition in late November when Soltani told reporters that, based on the performance of Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, he anticipated Islamist gains in Algeria’s upcoming parliamentary election in May 2012. In November, Abdallah Djaballah formed a new party called the Justice and Development Front whilst also predicting Islamist success. Rumours in the Algerian press say that members of the former FIS and the Salafi movement are weighing whether to advocate that their followers support one or the other party.

The MSP hopes to benefit from branding itself as a reformist movement at a time when the government is facing growing pressure for reform. Leaving the government thus appears as an attempt to capitalise on its Islamist background and status as the largest legal Islamist party, whilst distancing itself from the baggage of the coalition. The legal Islamist parties’ behaviour ahead of the 2012 election suggests they expect to continue to profit from the ban on the FIS while gaining more political ground by repositioning themselves as reformist opposition forces.

This has provoked criticism from Algerian opposition parties on the left, who attacked the MSP as opportunists. The move does appear cynical since the parties that won elections in the other Arab countries have been opposition parties, unlike the MSP, which has been in government for eight years.

Jockeying for FIS’s constituency

The experience of the participatory Islamist parties over the last 15 years did not bring major change to Algeria. The established regime benefited more from Islamist participation in formal politics than Islamist parties did themselves. Conversely, the participation of Islamists cost the Islamist movement internal unity and popular credibility as a result of their association with the regime.

Open competition for former FIS voters’ support among legal Islamist parties will likely increase as parties position themselves as conduits to channel popular sentiments. The MSP has mainly looked to expand its own base among conservative Algerians as it has not necessarily been a strong magnet for the FIS constituency and many Algerians view the party's leadership as opportunists (or khubzistes). However, if it hopes to compete with the other major legal parties, it will have to make changes and distinguish itself from its history as a part of the coalition government, which many Algerians regard with contempt.

The FIS’s leadership, in exile and in Algeria, have said they plan to campaign for legalisation at the United Nations and other international organisations. On December 28 they criticised the government’s political parties law, calling it discriminatory and dubbing the reconciliation accord “a law that criminalised the victims who won through the ballot box while granting impunity to the Janvieristes,” referring to the popular term for the army officers who initiated the 1992 coup d’état.

It remains unlikely the FIS will be allowed to make a formal return to politics in Algeria, leaving the FIS constituency an important source of potential votes for Algeria’s legal Islamist parties. However, Islamist parties will also have to compete with other important trends, notably the FLN and RND who currently control the government and the important leftist and Berber parties. Additionally, it is not out of the question that FIS members in Algeria might attempt to act on their own in the next year, independent of established political parties.

What remains to be seen is whether the regime will allow the 2012 elections to go ahead more or less freely and whether the population at large decides to participate. The official voter turnout figures for Algeria’s elections are usually exaggerated and most Algerians regard legislative elections as a mere formality given the Parliament’s weak powers constitutionally; politics are perceived to be dominated by the president and the army. Most Algerians remain dissatisfied with the status quo but apathetic toward the country’s formal political process. Overt obstructionism though could prove a flash point for the opposition.

If the 2012 election is managed like previous polls in Algeria, Islamists will face major obstacles involving administration and access to public space for meetings and rallies. Indeed, it will be the state that counts votes and announces the results. The Interior Ministry recently announced efforts to amend the process of forming and recognising new parties and some Algerian observers feel this might cause a flood of new smaller parties, with the aim of dividing the field and diluting the ability of any one religious or opposition party to win a large part of the votes. And because parties like the MSP have been in government for close to a decade, it is wholly possible the Algerian press could be made aware of “scandals,” real or fabricated, involving party officials and cadres.

Indeed, nothing is assured for Islamists in Algeria.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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