The Middle East Channel

A second chance for Algeria’s Islamists

Algeria has thus far kept a relatively low profile amidst sweeping regional change in the Middle East and North Africa. The oil-rich country, often characterized as "untouched" by the Arab Spring, saw no Tahrir Square or Avenue Habib Bourguiba, and, accordingly, has drawn minimal attention from international media. Although Algerians do not loath Bouteflika like ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Algeria has thus far kept a relatively low profile amidst sweeping regional change in the Middle East and North Africa. The oil-rich country, often characterized as "untouched" by the Arab Spring, saw no Tahrir Square or Avenue Habib Bourguiba, and, accordingly, has drawn minimal attention from international media. Although Algerians do not loath Bouteflika like Libyans did Qaddafi or Egyptians did Mubarak, they do have similar grievances — high unemployment, inadequate housing, and a dearth of social services. A recent increase in protests across the country that have resulted in clashes with security forces reflect growing social anxiety, and a number of attempted self-immolations, including one just over a week ago in the Tiaret governorate, reveal that Algerians are actively interested in effectuating change. A cursory look at the situation might therefore suggest, as has some recent analysis, that revolution looms; a closer examination reveals that, at least for the moment, this is probably not in the cards. But while an increasing trend of social discontent will likely not yield drastic change from below, it may motivate Algerians, who have a history of abstention, to turn out in greater numbers in the legislative elections to be held next month, hoping to cast their votes for a party that will address their demands.

As transitioning North African countries are increasingly impacted by a rise of political Islam and bourgeoning democratic consciousness, Algerian authorities are preparing for the country’s legislative elections and hedging their bets against a similar fate. Like its neighboring (fallen) regimes, whose distaste for religion translated to authoritarian secularism, Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s government is haunted by the memory of the tragedie nationale, and, dominated by the National Liberation Front (FLN), promotes a staunchly anti-Islamic leadership. The highly secretive political and military elite, known as Le Pouvoir (the powers-that-be), has been referred to as dubiously democratic, and most recently passed a series of laws that, superficially, could signal an opening of sorts for the political spectrum and progress towards more transparent governance. Now passed, these reforms, which Bouteflika promised last April as an attempt to prevent upheaval, serve as the framework under which the legislative elections will occur.

Historically of course, Le Pouvoir‘s democratic gestures have hardly been a boon for opposition parties. When, in 1989, the political system expanded from a one-party rule, dominated by the FLN, to a multiparty system, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) emerged and garnered enough support to win the first round of elections. Rather than respect the electoral results, however, the military intervened, cancelling the second round. While the regime attributes the decade of violence that followed solely to the FIS and the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA) that it spawned, the suffocation of a nascent democratic process was unambiguous. The FIS’ brief entry into politics therefore marks an important landmark in the country’s history and provides insight into both the regime’s hardline approach to opposition parties and a population wary of political change; it would be naïve to let either regional transformations or Algeria’s domestic reforms overshadow the reality of Le Pouvoir‘s stern grip on power.

Western officials have lauded Bouteflika’s "reforms," praising Algerian authorities for taking initiative towards democracy. Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mourad Medelci paid visits to international leaders, showcasing the reform process as another monumental Arab Spring moment. But beneath new laws that "impressed" French Minister of the Interior Claude Guéant and that Hillary Clinton called "very significant" are highly restrictive texts, both regarding political parties and members of civil society. A new law pertaining to political parties bars former FIS members from political participation, and bans anyone "responsible for manipulating religion in directing the national tragedy" from running in parliamentary, legislative, or presidential elections. Despite these blatantly anti-democratic undertones, the party law was still liberal enough to drastically open the political landscape, granting approval to numerous parties for the first time in decades, many of which are Islamist. This seemingly generous gestures may well be a deliberate attempt to disperse Islamist parties, mitigating their chances for success.

But some Islamist parties are catching on to Le Pouvoir‘s agenda. The Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP), an Islamist party and, up until recently, a member of the presidential alliance, decided to withdraw from the coalition. Upon withdrawal, party leader Bouguerra Soltani called on other Islamist parties to coalesce, and the resulting Green Alliance, which unites the MSP, al Islah and al Nahda, could give religious parties greater weight come May. Although the moderate MSP has traditionally been perceived to be a puppet of the regime, its withdrawal, attributed to the president’s insufficient reforms, may give it a new, autonomous edge. The party, an offshoot of the Muslim Broterhood which supported  Bouteflika’s bid for reelection in 2009, is now energized by Islamist victories in Tunisia and Morocco and empowered to divorce itself from the majority.

As Algeria’s Islamist camp gears up for the election, the majority, ardently secular FLN continues to disintegrate, plagued by internal disagreements between the party’s young members and its old guard. Over a week ago, the party’s central committee declared a vote of no confidence in FLN secretary general Abdelaziz Belkhadem, and the reform movement within the party, known as the redresseurs, announced their intention to present independent candidate lists in May. The next day, a statement from the meeting not only cemented the party’s instability heading into the elections, but revealed that, if the reform movement does succeed in gaining sufficient autonomy to present independent candidate lists, it will seek to change the party’s trajectory entirely, which will only impede its ability to organize a coherent campaign platform.

While party authorizations in Algeria can hardly be likened to the empowerment of individual political choice that emerged in post-revolutionary Tunisia, Algerian voters, already distanced from the political process, may nonetheless find it possible to find their views expressed in a slowly evolving political environment. If Islamist parties are proactive and campaign aggressively — like Ennahda did last fall in Tunisia — the fragile FLN could find itself trailing behind, unraveled by internal rancor and regional trends that bode well for Islamists. If Algeria’s Islamists follow Ennahda’s strategy and couch their victory as a top-down, well-organized approach to regenerate Algeria’s cultural values, they may succeed in energizing a voter base that might otherwise abstain.

The moderate MSP’s role in forming the Green Alliance would also help the party frame political Islam as a source of policy, untangling its association with violence, the tragedie nationale, and the MIA that dismissed democratic governance. The alliance would have to be transparent in presenting a consistent platform, so as not to be associated with the FIS’s internal fragmentation and opposing internal factions that ultimately led to its demise. Most importantly, the MSP’s inherent organizational advantage over newly established parties, against the backdrop of a dissolving FLN, makes it well-poised entering the campaign period.

It must be said that the preceding analysis only matters in a world where elections are fair and transparent according to reasonable standards. Bouteflika’s decision to invite international observers and establish a national monitoring commission hints at changes from previous elections which were rife with fraud. But political parties are still skeptical, and pre-election assessment missions from organizations like the National Democratic Institute reveal that, less than a month before election day, numerous electoral provisions and regulations remain undetermined. These scenarios also hinge upon citizen engagement: despite recent attempts from the Interior Ministry to encourage turnout, such as an SMS campaign urging participation, Algerians seem unenthused. Though the meager 36 percent turnout in 2007 in the country’s last elections does not bode well for a likely mobilization this time around, the outcome of the May elections remain anyone’s guess. The complete scarcity of credible public opinion surveys in a society as opaque as Algeria’s makes forming predictions about voter intentions difficult.

These caveats considered, the elections could present an opportunity to shift the political landscape. While Islamist parties may not obtain a majority of seats, they may obtain a plurality. Such a performance, however, would require campaign strategies crafted to attract and energize Algerians skeptical of ties to the regime as well as those still shaken by the bloodbath they associate with political change.

Karina Piser is a Masters’ student in International Security at Sciences Po in Paris, France.

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