As North African leaders fall in quick succession there is a reawakening of Islamist ambitions in Algeria

Algeria

2011 has seen a number of long-standing North African leaders fall in quick succession. In this new political landscape, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, now in his third term, has become something of an oddity.  And after parliamentary elections in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt saw breakthrough results for Islamist parties, Bouteflika is now reassessing his relationship with Islamist elements in his own political alliance before legislative elections in 2012.

The Waning of the Bouteflika Camp

The ruling coalition, which was formed during Algeria’s presidential elections in 2004, contains the country’s three largest political parties: Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN), the National Democratic Rally (RND) and an Islamist party, the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP). The coalition went on to gain a large majority in the last legislative elections of 2007. Several signs indicated that the alliance is on the verge of a collapse. The Islamist MSP has decided it no longer needs to ride on the coattails of Bouteflika’s FLN party. Motivated by the success of Islamist parties in neighbouring countries, the party announced that competition, and not alliance, would define their relationship with FLN in 2012. The other coalition member, RND, has made some cutting remarks about its alliance partners; it suggested that MSP could not credibly distinguish themselves from the current system and reproached FLN for destroying “state culture”.

The MSP and Its Islamist Ambition

Understandably, it was the MSP that was the first to distance itself from the current alliance. With Morocco’s PJD now the largest party in the new parliament and Al-Nahda holding the most seats in Tunisia’s parliamentary coalition, the MSP is seeking to emulate the electoral successes of its regional counterparts. One factor that may prohibit this success is that MSP is allied with the current regime, unlike its neighbouring Islamists, who were persecuted under previous leaders. For although it is the most important Islamist presence in the current restrictive political system, the MSP is, in fact, indiscernible from its allies due to its active participation in the presidential alliance. This participation was guided by the necessary process of national reconciliation, but also by the idea that an empty chair policy would not aid the institutionalisation of the party. Algeria’s post-civil war reconciliation policy stipulates that no coalition can be formed “based on differences in religion, language, race, gender, profession or region.”

The ruling coalition is diverse, but is brought together by a power sharing agreement in which Bouteflika has given the MSP legitimising executive functions in exchange for an Islamist endorsement of FLN’s coalition. In consequence, the MSP lacks the novelty value, untainted reputation that garnered so many votes for PJD and Al-Nahda in Morocco and Tunisia’s recent elections.

Can MSP Become the New Islamist Powerhouse in Algeria?

A new MSP strategy is slowly revealing itself. Its leader, Bougerra Soltani, recently declared that 2012 would be a year of competition rather than alliance. Still, many doubt his ability to act as a figurehead for change. On December 6, the Algerian parliament voted to uphold the 20 year ban on the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The ban was initially instilled when FIS’s victory in the first round 1991 Algerian legislative elections provoked an intervention from the Algerian national army. This intervention would start a decade-long civil war in which 200,000 Algerian lives were lost. The renewed ban generally prohibits: “any person responsible for the exploitation of religion having led to the national tragedy (civil war) from founding a party or participating in its creation”, but in practice its sole aim is to prevent the FIS from ever returning to power.

Soltani has called for a union of Islamist parties in Algeria prior to the legislative elections in May, but has stopped short of welcoming former FIS members into his party. In contrast, Abdellah Djaballah, the charismatic leader of another Islamist alliance, the Justice and Development Front, has more positively called upon former FIS members to join his union. It is possible that Djaballah’s movement will become the figurehead of an Islamist alliance, rather than MSP, as Soltani has dragged his feet over an alliance with FIS members and has a tarnished image after years spent in power with Boutfilka’s FLN.

The Silenced Majority

Turnouts in recent parliamentary elections have been in the either too low or too distorted to comprehend how much support there is for the current alliance. The elections of 2002 and 2007 have seen a low turnout of respectively 46% and 35%, while the high turnout of 74% during the 2009 presidential elections was attributed by many to the regime’s manipulation of the electoral process. With these figures, the future orientation of the electorate is difficult to ascertain. Despite strong possibility that the presidential alliance may disband, the FLN has not lost its sense of self-complacency. Abdelaziz Belkhadem, Minister of State and FLN Secretary General, was typically offhand when asked if the Islamists could win the next election: “Do not waste your time, the people know well their interests”.

The question however is less whether the population knows where its interests lie than whether it will be able to express them freely. Abdellah Djaballah has said that “the Islamist movement has every chance of getting into power, provided that free and transparent elections are held”. Whether the countries disparate Islamist groups can actually form a political alliance remains to be seen. However, one thing is becoming increasingly clear; the presidential alliance in its current format is well and truly buried.

*Lirim Azemi is a freelance journalist specialising in politics and security with specific reference to North Africa. He holds an MA in Geopolitics from King’s College London. His article was first published by Think Africa PressGo to Original

2011 Human Wrongs Watch

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