Algeria and the Islamic Movement: a Problem of Exclusion, Fundamentalism, and Memory

ON APRIL 18th, the results of the Algerian presidential elections were announced: Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been elected Algeria’s President for a fourth consecutive term, despite his advanced age and feeble health. Bouteflika has been in power since 1999 and the regime has, apparently, successfully survived the turmoil that shook the region in 2011. The regime has indeed been hardened by the many conflicts and uprising that have characterised Algeria’s history since independence, including a long lasting civil war that savaged the country in 1992. As a consequence of its troubled history, by the time of the Arab Spring the regime was quite familiar with the kind of protest taking place and more experienced in handling it than some of Algeria’s neighbouring countries.

Image courtesy of Thierry Ehrmann, © 2011, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Thierry Ehrmann, © 2011, some rights reserved

Yet not all that glitters is gold: the regime might have returned to normality, but it is a condition of “normal instability” in which tensions are always present. One of the main sources of concern is the unresolved problem of Islamist movements and Islamist fundamentalism. On April 20th a group of Islamist militants, allegedly affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), killed 14 Algerian soldiers in the North of the country, not very far from the capital. Evidently, extremism continues to constitute a crucial problem facing the regime.

Islam has always predominated in Algeria. Islamism was one of the mobilising themes of Algerian during the fight for independence, and it was recognised as state religion in the 1976 Constitution. Yet the military, which is the real face of the regime and acts behind a veil of political institutions, wanted Algeria to be a secular state. Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 a distinct Islamist current emerged. While excluded from the political life, Islamists were actively present in civil society. When the FLN regime opened the political system to other parties in 1989, and in response to the political and economic pressures in the 1970s and 1980s, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was founded. The Islamists were able to mobilise a majority share of the population dissatisfied with the regime, win the 1990 local elections, and win 188 out of 231 seats in the first round of the general legislative elections of 1991.

Interestingly, one of the main motives why the FIS received such widespread support lies in the weakness of the secular parties opposing the regime. The opposition was divided and the many new parties that had been created in 1989 did not present a clear, convincing counter-policy to the FLN or FIS. Many parties boycotted the 1990 elections, leaving the FIS as sole representative of the people’s dissatisfaction with the regime. The Islamists, in fact, were able to gather the kind of organised popular support required to win elections, thanks to a deep-rooted presence that had been consolidated over years of exclusion from the political sphere. Many people voted for the FIS not because they shared their goal of an Algerian Islamic state ruled by the Sharia law, but rather because they believed it was the only way to oppose the regime in an effective way. By not allowing for political parties to exist, the regime had prevented the secular forces in the country to organise and, ironically, favoured the FIS. However, the FIS was a moderate party, which was the main reason why the regime allowed it to take part in the elections, and many other Islamist parties considered more dangerous for the regime were not included.

A military coup cancelled the elections in early 1992, followed by a more violent civil war. During the violence, the Islamist movement was divided and made more extreme as radical factions fought for dominance. Following the decision of the government, the Islamic Salvation Army, linked to the FIS, was created. Soon more extreme groups were constituted, such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), joined by the Armed Islamic Movement and Movement for an Islamic State, and in 1996, the Salafist Group for Combat and Preaching (GSPC). The government’s failure to include the Islamic parties in the dialogue for the reformation of the Algerian constitution exacerbated the radicalism. As the conflict became more violent, the regime reacted by trying to co-opt the Islamic forces or by using Islamic fundamentalism as an excuse to strengthen coercive measures (a strategy that sounded even more convincing after 9/11). In fact, in the years preceding the Arab Spring, Bouteflika’s administration, backed by the military, was clever enough to include the Islamist Movement for a Peaceful Society (MSP) and the National Democratic Rally (RND). Still, this was not a significant representation of the Islamic movement.

During the uprisings of the Arab Spring the Islamists did not take a leading role. Although the former FIS leader Ali Belhadj did participate in the demonstrations in Algiers and the pro-Islamist activist network Rachad supported the National Coordination for Change and Democracy, the Islamists were at the time divided and the violence of the civil war had left the population diffident as the GIA had repetitively targeted civilians and although the GSPC had promised not to do so, the promise had been loosely kept.

The fact that Islamist parties had won elections in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt made the regime fear the Algerian elections of 2012 would have witnessed an Islamist ascent. This fear was reinforced by the fact that the MSP decided to withdraw from the ruling coalition to join forces with two smaller Islamist opposition groups, Islah and Ennahda, to form the Green Algeria Alliance. The regime then further constrained the role of the Islamists by prohibiting political actors associated with the FIS to create new parties. However, because some of them previously sided with the regime, the people opposing the regime did not trust the members of this alliance.

Moreover, because of the fragmentation of the Islamist movement, their lack of strategy, and the fact that the more radical factions discredited it during the civil war it seems unlikely that Islamist parties will gain great support in the near future. The situation was no better for these latest elections and some parties decided not run in order to boycott what they feel is an unfair electoral system. The lack of an institutionalised significant political channel for the Islamist current is likely to make it easier for Islamist extremists to recruit new forces. The GIA is today largely defunct but some of its members are said to have joined Al-Qaeda or Aqim. The regime faces enough challenges already: the public is disillusioned with the regime (whose legitimacy has been declining for a number of years), the corrupted economy (the reliance on gas and oil income is simply unsustainable), and a new generation, less influenced by the legacy of the pain of the civil war, is asking for change.

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