INSIGHT-Algerian Islamists hope for "Arab Spring" revival
Thu Dec 8, 2011 11:43am GMT
* Islamists see Tunisia as good precedent
* Civil war legacy is biggest obstacle
* Debate in Algerian elite over role for Islamists
By William Maclean
LONDON, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Algeria's Islamists, in the political wilderness
since their last attempt to win power dissolved into civil war, are now
trying again, galvanized by the success of their brethren elsewhere in north
Africa in the wake of the "Arab Spring".
Most Islamists in Algeria have been excluded from political life since the
conflict, but in the past few months they have shown renewed signs of
activity, much of it conducted from exile to dodge the attentions of the
They have set up a satellite television station based in Europe, sent
delegations to Arab countries that saw revolutions this year, and made
tentative forays into anti-government protests.
Their chances of success are slim: they are divided into rival ideological
camps, hemmed in by the powerful Algerian security apparatus, and, most
importantly, discredited in the eyes of many people by a conflict in which
they took part and which killed an estimated 200,000 people.
But they see an opportunity in the upheavals of the "Arab Spring," which
have this year unseated entrenched secularist leaders. In neighbouring
Tunisia, a previously outlawed Islamist movement has come to power, while in
Egypt Islamists have taken a strong early lead in multi-stage parliamentary
"Tunisia was an example and launcher of this (Arab Spring) revolution," said
Abdullah Anas, a London-based member of the leadership council of the
Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which is banned in Algeria.
"It could be a very good example for Algeria."
LEGACY OF VIOLENCE
Any Islamist revival in Algeria, an OPEC member and supplier of about a
fifth of Europe's imported gas, would have first to shed the burden of the
country's bloody history.
Twenty years ago, FIS was poised to win a legislative election, called after
street protests forced the authorities to loosen their grip on power. FIS
said it would impose an Islamic state.
The military-backed government stepped in to annul the election. The
Islamists took up arms and Algeria slipped into a conflict of horrific
violence. Civilians had their throats slit in the street; in the mornings,
people woke up to find their towns littered with bodies.
A rump of Islamists, now operating under the banner of al Qaeda in the
Islamic Maghreb, is still fighting. They periodically ambush security forces
in the countryside, kidnap Westerners and stage suicide bombings.
But the violence has subsided considerably. A huge security crackdown has
rounded up thousands of insurgents. Others have laid down their arms and
been granted an amnesty, in exchange for an undertaking to stay out of
This legacy is the biggest obstacle to any comeback by Algeria's Islamists.
"Since then (the conflict), the Islamist was no longer seen as a hero who
stands up against tyranny," said Soheib Bencheikh, a theologian who used to
be the chief cleric at the mosque in Marseilles, France, where there is a
large Algerian community.
"On the contrary, he became, in the eyes of public opinion, accountable for
the pain and suffering of the people," Bencheikh told Reuters.
A fear of a return to violence helps explain why Algeria has this year
remained relatively calm while neighbouring countries have been convulsed by
But the Islamists still believe that Algeria is ripe for change, and are
beginning to take practical steps.
Starting in November, a group of exiled Islamists with links to FIS set up a
Europe-based television station, called Rachad TV. Carried by the Atlantic
Bird 7 and Nilesat satellites , the station can be picked up in Algeria,
where most homes have a dish.
It broadcasts political and social programmes where opposition leaders and
activists -- most of them harshly critical of the government -- are invited
to comment on Algeria.
At the top of the station's homepage on the Internet, there is a link to
show viewers "how to free your country", and a second link to help them
"organize and participate in unrest."
The exiles say they are also building contacts with other countries where
"Arab Spring" revolts have propelled Islamists into a position of power.
Rachad says on its website that it sent a delegation to Libya in late
September to meet officials in the new government, in which Islamists have a
Abdullah Anas, the exiled Islamist in London, said there had also been
contacts with Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the moderate Islamist Ennahda
party. Since an election in October his party leads Tunisia's coalition
Tunisia's experience had proved that it is possible to open up the political
space in north Africa, said Anas.
"Everyone in Algeria must understand that Algeria has room for all ... no
matter what opinions you have," he said, calling for a lifting of political
curbs and the possibility of power-sharing between previously antagonistic
Inside Algeria, the most influential Islamist force are the Salafists,
followers of an ultra-purist interpretation of Islam. Unlike the FIS, they
are tolerated by the Algerian state because their creed forbids
participation in politics.
When Algeria was shaken at the beginning of this year by protests sparked by
a spike in food prices, the spiritual leader of the Algerian Salafists,
Abdelmalek Ramdani, who lives in Saudi Arabia, issued a religious decree.
It said: "As long as the commander of the nation is a Muslim, you must obey
and listen to him. Those who are against him are just seeking to replace
him, and this is not licit."
Nevertheless, there are stirrings of political activity by some Salafist
Sheikh Abdelfateh Zeraoui, a former FIS member and now a well-known Salafist
preacher in the Algerian capital, issued a declaration in October saying the
government had to enact urgent reforms.
"Political reforms allowing us to have free political activity are key to
the stability of the country. Without reforms the country may explode," the
The preacher has also tried to organise protest marches in the capital, but
these have been blocked by the security forces. "We have been barred from
politics," he told Reuters.
The fact that Algerian Islamists are divided dilutes their ability to stage
a comeback, said Mohamed Mouloudi, an editor and specialist on Islam.
"They are no longer speaking with one voice," Mouloudi told Reuters.
"You have the Salafists, the Muslim brotherhood, and the Djaz'airists,(who
give priority to Algerian religious traditions) among others," he said. "You
have those who are for a political action, and those who consider political
action as illicit."
Even so, a debate is now under way in earnest within the Algerian ruling
elite, for the first time since the conflict began 20 years ago, about
giving Islamists a role in politics.
The focus for that debate -- which, like much of Algerian politics, is
conducted behind closed doors -- is the question of who will succeed
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika when his final term ends in 2014.
One camp within the elite is backing Abdelaziz Belkhadem, a former prime
minister and secretary general of the ruling FLN party. He is a secularist
but is trusted by the Islamists. Opposing him is a camp of hardline
secularists who have backing from the powerful security forces.
Friction spilled out into the open when a group of Belkhadem opponents
inside the FLN launched a campaign to have him removed from the party
"It will be wise to promote a man like Abdelaziz Belkhadem who has good ties
with Islamists as well as with decision makers inside the regime," said
Mohamed Lagab, a secularist academic at Algiers university.
"Decision makers should take into account that North Africa will be ruled by
Islamists ," said Lagab. (Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
C Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved
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Received on Thu Dec 08 2011 - 15:01:04 EST