The end of a chapter in Algerian history could not have been symbolised in a better manner. Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, the man who has governed Algeria for the last two decades, stepped down on 3 April after weeks of mass protests.
Twenty-five days later, Abassi Madani, the co-founder of the country’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) along with Ali ben Hadj, died at the age of 88 in Qatar.
Bouteflika, who took office in 1999, engineered the peace process that ended a civil war that started in 1992 and caused the deaths of more than 150,000 people after the army cancelled the results of parliamentary elections in Algeria.
The FIS had won 188 out of 231 seats during the first round of the elections, and the cancellation led Madani to call for “war” against the army. His call was followed by clashes, terrorist operations and an Islamist insurgency in some parts of the North African country.
Bouteflika passed laws that included disarming members of Islamist militias, who accepted the step in return for allowing moderate Islamist groups to run in elections and function within legal frameworks. An amnesty was declared on crimes committed by both the militias and the security forces.
Twenty years later, many are asking whether it will be possible for the country’s Islamists, including the FIS, to take part in the post-Bouteflika political arrangements in Algeria.
According to Sharan Grewal, a postdoctoral fellow at the Brooking’s Institution Center for Middle East Policy, a US think tank, it is hard to reach a conclusion in the light of the existing political conditions, though he believes that “all sides have learned lessons from the experience of the 1990s” and are not interested in “repeating the devastating civil war.”
“There are several legal Islamist parties that have already been working within the system. The Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), for instance, was part of the ruling coalition until 2012. This, together with the Justice and Development Front, the Al-Islah Party and other smaller Islamist parties have already been permitted to contest elections and will likely continue to be tolerated by the regime,” Grewal said.
“The controversial question is what happens to former members of the banned Islamic Salvation Front. Will they be allowed to re-legalise the FIS? If not, will they be allowed to re-group into a new party? It’s very hard to predict at this point.”
Grewal also referred to “signs of friction between Islamist and liberal forces within the opposition” in Algeria, highlighting the failed experience of the National Coordination for Change, a nascent opposition coalition, which “quickly fell apart” over the inclusion of former FIS members.
“That said, there are also popular figures who may be able to bridge this divide, such as Mustapha Bouchachi. This provides some hope that the protesters can downplay any Islamist-liberal divisions and instead keep the focus on changing the regime,” Grewal said.
Over the past weeks, both the protesters and the Islamists have demanded no involvement of regime figures in the interim political system in Algeria.
Just after the country’s parliament declared Abdelkader Bensalah as interim leader on 9 April for 90 days until presidential polls take place, protesters chanted “Bensalah, go” and “they haven’t heard us, we will continue to march,” the French TV channel France 24 reported.
Other demands of the protesters include political and institutional reforms and guarantees of free-and-fair elections.
The Islamists have expressed the same position. MSP’s leader Abdelrazak Makri, speaking to the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, said that “popular movements are the sole driver of change” and stressed that “it is out of the question for the Islamists to control the civil movement” in Algeria.
Leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Front Abdallah Djaballah announced that “we have been among the protesters since day one” and expressed his rejection of giving room to ex-regime individuals to manage the transitional phase.
However, it will be difficult to deal with the Algerian Islamists as a single entity, as not all of them joined the post-war political process.
Some of them, including the Salafis, continue to deploy their militants in the mountains in Algeria and attack the police, military and civilians in a campaign for regime change and the creation of an Islamic caliphate.
These operations are mainly conducted by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, and groups affiliated to the Islamic State (IS) group have followed the same path since 2015.
“There is zero possibility of the FIS returning to the Algerian political scene. There are other Islamist parties that participate in parliamentary politics and will likely put up candidates in future presidential elections. There is, however, little chance of electoral or policy success in the light of Algeria’s past experiences and present political trends,” commented Geoff Porter, president of North Africa Risk Consulting, a think tank.
Porter noted that the “Islamists have been conspicuously absent from the demonstrations because they know that their voices are not welcomed” and added that “there is no meaningful Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] movement in Algeria at the moment.”
Dalia Ghanem, scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, shared a similar view, saying that some Islamist leaders were not welcomed by the protesters when they tried to join them, being enforced to leave quickly. Ghanem said, based on her field research, that the Islamists are seen by many people as partners of the regime.
But she differentiated between three types of Islamists.
Firstly, the FIS, which—whether structurally, organizationally or as an Islamist party—“does not exist anymore: there is no such thing in 2019 called FIS”. Ghanem stressed that any discussion about the threat of the FIS does not go beyond being a “publicity” matter.
Secondly, the “extremist wing”, which was crushed by the Algerian government during the 1990s, and—thanks to Bouteflika’s policies—the peace process was followed by the rehabilitation of 15,000 jihadists.
Ghanem argued that the “jihadist threat is very low”, especially that “it has been a while” since the last large-scale terrorist attack as that of 2013. Yet, Ghanem did not deny the fact that terrorist operations negatively affect the Islamist gains in any elections.
“The jihadists failed in giving their dream of an Islamic state to the new generation of Algeria, and today they have very low backup or support from the society”, said the Algerian scholar.
Thirdly, the moderate Islamists who have been included in the political process since 1995. They, since then, have been co-opted. “The best example of co-optation is that of the MSP, which is the main Islamic party”, Ghanem said. But she emphasized that the “MSP has lost its credibility in the eyes of its constituents and are no longer capable of mobilizing”.
Ghanem also referred to Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya, describing it as “pretty strong” and “has become the mainstream Islamist group in Algeria”, saying that “the question is whether it will make a move in the coming years.”
“The moderates are not the same as jihadists, especially that the former had the chance to get ministerial portfolios and parliamentary representation, and accordingly going to war again is a costly decision and a terrible calculation for them, especially that the Algerian army is now one the strongest armies in the Middle East. So if Islamists fought against them [army], they will be disappointed and terribly crushed”, she concluded.
At present, the FIS is still banned in Algeria, while the legal Islamist parties won only 48 out of 462 seats in the 2017 parliamentary elections.
The performance of the Islamists in the forthcoming electoral race will thus say a lot about whether they will be welcomed back into the Algerian political arena over the coming years.
*This story was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly.