It has been twenty years since the Algerian elections of 1991, in which the Islamist Salvation Front, under the leadership of Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, emerged victorious - only to see the election results annulled by the army. This sparked a ten year civil war, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Algerians. Today, in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions and the success of the Islamists in elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, Algeria’s Islamists are looking forward to a strong comeback on the [political] stage, while their rivals prepare themselves to face this eventuality.
That the winds of the Arab Spring have not reached Algeria’s shores has piqued the interest of Foreign Policy magazine, leading it to investigate why [there have not been uprisings in Algeria,] despite the presence of every necessary elements. [The magazine] attributed this fact to the “reform measures” that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika had undertaken during his reign, including ending the civil war; signing the National Reconciliation Agreement; expanding freedoms of opinion; limiting the role and influence of the security forces and intelligence services in political affairs; repealing the longstanding state of emergency; increasing government subsidies on some consumer goods; and implementing laws that govern [political] parties, elections and the media.
In the past twenty years, the Islamist movement in Algeria has been through many turbulent periods, resulting in its fragmentation and assimilation into a number of other parties and movements, some of which cooperated with the regimes in power and were represented in those regimes’ governments, while others remained part of the opposition, or were in fact banned. The Movement for the Society of Peace, which is allied with the regime, also suffered from divisions, along with the Nahda (Renaissance) Movement, on whose ruins was established the Movement for National Reform, which itself was split into two entities, the Justice and Development Front and the New Algeria Front. Observers think that these divisions were not the result of ideological or political differences, but were caused by rivalries over the leadership of the Islamist movement, and ultimately weakened it as a whole.
At the beginning of the new year, 186 Islamist personalities issued a document in which they presented what they called “an initiative for electoral alliances” in preparation for the elections scheduled to take place next May, under the slogan of “For a Unified Islamist List”. The initiative’s general coordinator, former Islamist Member of Parliament Izz Al-Din Jarafa, clarified that this initiative was not meant to replace the parties, and in fact is non-partisan and strives to work with everyone. The document did not elaborate on the mechanisms or principles by which the alliance would be formed; yet despite that, a survey conducted by two study centers showed that it “will sweep the [political] arena, because it represents the national demands of voters in general, and Islamist voters in particular”. But, according to observers, the years of discord and rivalry between the different Islamist parties and movements make it difficult to achieve the initiative’s goal.
The former Secretary General of the Muslim Brotherhood in Algeria, Saeed Marsy, who is also one of the personalities calling for the initiative, admitted that “the initiative will be difficult to implement because these official parties have their own political agendas” which could make any accord between them impossible.
In the same context, the Movement of Society for Peace under the leadership of Abu Jarra Sultani declared its disengagement from the tripartite ruling coalition with the Algerian Liberation Front and the National Democratic Assembly, while maintaining its representation in the government. The movement called for the establishment of a government made up of technocrats that would oversee preparations and the subsequent management of the elections. Sultani had criticized the reforms that President Bouteflika implemented, considering the laws that parliament had ratified did not include any clauses dealing with freedoms, and opening up the political or media arenas. (It should be noted that the Algerian Parliament had ratified laws dealing with [political] parties, elections, and the media which were considered reformative, but had stirred widespread controversy among the Algerian populace and in the ranks of political factions.
In the meantime, Algeria’s Interior Minister, Dahou Ould Kablia, ruled out the possibility of the Islamists coming to power as a result of the upcoming legislative elections, stating: “Algeria has its own peculiarities and social values which do not necessarily resemble those in other places.” He further expressed concern that Algerians would refrain from participating in the elections. The minister did not elucidate what those “peculiarities” or “social values” were that differentiated Algeria [from other countries], while it should be noted that Algeria was the first country in which Islamists came to power, before the army intervened and annulled the election results in 1991.
Yet some of the events occurring in the Algerian capital cannot serve to reinforce the Interior Minister’s “nonchalance”, and in fact point in the opposite direction. Following the Movement of Society for Peace’s announcement of its withdrawal from the tripartite ruling coalition, former president Al Yamin Zarwal made a rapid visit to Algiers which caught the attention of observers, where he met the Director of Homeland Security, General Bashir Tartag, and high ranking officials in the Interior Ministry. Due to talk spreading across Algeria about the “aspirations” of President Bouteflika’s brother, Said Bouteflika, to come to power, observers have noted that “it is not out of the realm of possibility that this matter has to do with preparing President Zarwal for the next stage and putting an end to Said Bouteflika’s ambitions”, as well as “placing a road block before the expected Islamic tide”.
Notwithstanding Said Bouteflika’s aspiration to succeed his brother in power, and perhaps also Al Yamin Zarwal’s ambitions to return to power, the real concern which undoubtedly worries the ruling class in Algeria is that Islamist movements and parties will unite, despite the inherent difficulties. [In this case,] electoral results [could] mirror those of 1991, especially considering that the “special circumstances” [that would shield Algeria from an uprising along the lines of its neighbors] are nowhere to be seen. How the Algerians are worried about the specter of civil war returning! It is a worry that could lead Algerians to forgo participation in the elections, so as to prevent such an outcome. This is what the Algerian Interior Minister has alluded to, without clarifying the meaning behind his words.