Islamic Parties in Algeria, Flopping at a Blocked Horizon

As the presidential election in Algeria is approaching and due next spring, three questions are imposed about potential scenarios of the event. For example, what is the attitude of Islamists towards these elections? Whether they are going to boycott or participate? What are the opportunities for Islamists who are going through their worst days after it was the most prominent and influential on the political scene in Algeria?

Origin of Political Islam in Algeria

When talking about political Islam in Algeria, it is indispensable to go back to the beginning of the story and how Political Islam started during the French Colonization which started in 1830 and continued for 132 years. Throughout that period, many public resistance movements appeared and tried to utilize religion for mobilizing the public for resisting French colonization. It started with the poet, philosopher and fighter, Abdul Kader Al Jaza’eri up to Algerian Society of Scholars which was founded by the genius scholar Abdul Hameed Ben Badis.  

After the independence of Algeria in 1962, severe discrepancy appeared regarding the socialistic policy of the state. All those opposing this choice, specially Islamists, were arrested and Head of Islamic Scholars, Sheikh Basheer Al Ibraheemy was house-arrested.  

Because of suppression and repulsion, Islamists preferred to go through secrecy episode. Therefore, they established an Islamic nucleus at university. In 1974 Abdullah Jab Allah established the Islamic Nucleus in collaboration with some University students. Mahfouz Nahnah, on his part, inaugurated a secret organization together with his companion Muhammed Buslaimani. They named their group as “Theists Society” which was joined by some students who used to attend symposiums conducted by a thinker named Malek Ben Nabi.   

In 1976, the Algerian Regime declared National Charter Project which certified the Socialist and communist formula for Algeria. This document was an ideological reference for the state regarding constitution and laws. This declaration was utterly refused by Mahfouz Nahnah and his companions, so he sent a letter to Hawari Bu Median entitled: “Bu Median: Where to?”. The letter was signed by members of “Theists Society”. Mahfouz Nahnah and his companions were arrested following that letter. They were prosecuted and sentenced to 3-15 years imprisonments.   

After Hawari Bu Median died in December 1978, Al Shazeli Ben Jedeed came to power in February 1979. He allowed big margins to freedom and liberty and therefore, Socialists’ choice was gradually receding. New calls for revision and resurrection were heard among members of the ruling party.   

During the 1980s, three Islamic groups were involved in the Islamic mobility. These are the International Organization of Muslim Brothers under leadership of Mahfouz Nahnah, Local Muslim Brothers led by Sheikh Abdullah Jab Allah and followers of Malek Ben Beni led by Dr. Muhammad Bu Jalkha, and later by Muhammed Al Sa’eed. The last group was named “Students of the Mosque”.

This disunity negatively affected Islamic movement and its course as it was stigmatized by defection and division. Despite the efforts that were made to unify these divisions into one coherent body named “Islamic Proselytization Association”, It was a failure.

Islamic Proselytization Association was established by Sheikh Ahmad Sahnoun, who led the association as he was the oldest member -83 years old – and one of the founders of Algerian Society for Scholars. This society was an umbrella for all Islamic parties in Algeria with prominent figures like Mahfouz Nahnah, Abbasi Madani, Abdullah Jab Allah, Ali Belhaj and Muhammed Al Sa’eed. In addition to focusing on thought, their most important explicit objectives were correction of Islamic doctrine and reinforcement of Islamic morals and improvement of the country’s economy, which was collapsing during that period.

On the 5th of October 1988, massive demonstrations overwhelmed Algeria when thousands of Algerians got to the streets of major cities to demand essential economic, political and social reforms. The government was obliged to respond to the angry demonstrators and ratified the so-called 23 constitution in February 1989. This constitution opened new horizons for political multiplicity as article number 40 of that constitution emphasized and recognized the right to establish political societies.

Islamists during multi-party time

Ratification of the new constitution ended 3 decades of one-party domination of power i.e. National Liberation Front under a revolutionary legitimacy coverage. Soon after the new era started, Islamists ended up their secret activities and explicitly took up politics under different titles. Despite the diversity of their spectrums, they called for the implementation of Islamic doctrine as a sole solution to the problems of state and society. Mahfouz Nahnah and Muhammed Buslaimani established “Guidance and Reform Society” which was much of a social society. It was the first Islamic society that was established in the arms of political reforms done in Algeria following 1988 demonstrations.     

Following the establishment of “Guidance and Reform Society”, many other Islamic parties were formed and most important of which was “The Islamic Salvation Front” ISF. That was in February 1989 under the leadership of Abbasi Madani and his deputy Ali Belhaj.

In March 1989, Al Nahda Movement (Resurrection Movement) was established by Sa’ad Abdullah Jab Allah, who defected one year later as another candidate was supported for leading Al Nahda Movement. In 1990, Mahfouz Nahnah established Islamic Society Movement (ISM) which later converted into a new party named: “Society of Peace Movement” (SPM). This new movement came as an adaptation with the new constitutional amendment of 2008 which prohibited establishing parties that are based on religion, ethnicity, language or gender.

For Algerian Islamists, the situation during the time of political openness was not better than the situation during time of restrictions and oppression of freedom. This is because the new-born democracy was exposed to a test during labor stage ending in abortion that brought horrible consequences for Algerians.

Democracy Test

In June 1990, the National Salvation Front didn’t only win the municipality multi-party elections that were done for the first time in Algeria, but also the parliamentary elections on 26th of December 1991under the new constitution. National Salvation Front gained 188 seats out of 232 seats of the parliament. This result was very frustrating to the Algerian Authorities which immediately dissolved the Parliament on the 4th of January 1992. Seven days later, President Al Shazeli Ben Jedeed submitted his resignation, therefore, the Higher National Security Council decided to suspend the elections declaring that it was impossible to proceed with the elections before objective conditions were available for running government institutions.   

Suspension of the election caused an unprecedented political and security crisis, and put the county to wave of bloody violence. It was called the Red Ten. The country witnessed horrible massacres in which more than 20000 persons were killed.  

On the 9th of February 1992, President Muhammed Bu Dhiaf signed a degree to declare martial laws. One month later, the decision was made to dissolve Islamic Salvation Front and it was banned from any participation in the political process. This decision is still valid.

As a result of the turbulence that dominated the country, state institutions were impeded and the democratic process was aborted. This negatively affected the relation between Algerians and Political Islam, and their attitude to it especially when most of the blood shed was attributed to armed groups which used Islam as a mask for justifying their war against the Algerian Regime. This was clear after the national reconciliation was adopted and that helped in restoring peace and stability to the country. State institutions recovered and were reconstructed in the light of different results of the elections. Immediately the publicity of Islamic Parties retreated as their social crucible was shrinking due to accumulative ad complicated factors.

Post-National Reconciliation era and beginning of the collapse

Going back to the latest elections in the country, we can see how deep the gap was and how complicated the situation of Islamic parties proved to be. Islamists were defeated in the municipal elections on the 24th of November 2017. The coalition of National Construction Movement, Development and Justice Front and Renaissance Movement won only eight local councils out of 1541. All these three parties failed to gain even one seat in the 48 Provincial Councils.   

According to formal results of the elections that were declared by Minister of Interior, Nour El Deen Badawi, pro-government parties – National Liberation Front and the National Democratic Gathering – won most elected councils. The National Salvation Front, whose honorary head is President Abdul Aziz Bu Taflika himself, won 603 councils, whereas its opponent, The National Democratic Gathering, led by Prime Minister Ahmad Bu Yahia won 451 councils.

This was not the first disappointment for Islamists and proved to not be the last. Again, they failed in the parliamentary elections in May 2017 when five allying Islamic parties (Society of Peace Movement, Change Front, Justice and Development Front, National Construction Front) won only 48 seats in the 462-seat parliament.

Reviewing the gains of Islamists in the elections, we can see how the project of political Islam was staggering and swinging and how their social electoral background was decomposing, and this might threaten their opportunity in elections to come. In 1997 elections, Society of Peace Movement together with Renaissance Movement won 103 seats in the parliament, whereas in 2002 both Society of Peace and Reform Movement won only 81 seats. The worst was coming when Society of Peace won only 51 seats in 2007. The final retreat was in 2012 when 3 allying Islamic parties participated in the election under one name i.e. Green Algeria Alliance, and they won only 48 seats. Although some leading figures of Islamic parties attributed their defeat to forgery, some other figures were frank enough to admit defeat. This was a clear sign that Islamic parties were going through their worst times.

Former Head of Renaissance Movement, Dr. Fateh Rubaia’y posted on his Facebook Account giving advice to Islamists to forget all about forgery on the eve of   municipality elections in November 2017. He said: “I hope that Islamists will the disregard forgery in their speeches and start thinking about their failures”. He also advised leaders of the Islamic flock to deeply and thoughtfully consider the reasons for repeated failures. For him, Islamists should be politically realistic and attentive to criticizing voices. This led to collective and silent resignations among Islamists.

Accumulative and complicated reasons for retreat

In fact, there were accumulating reasons for the collapse of Islamists’ popularity in Algeria. The bitter experience of Algerians in the 1990s came on top of the list of reasons. Leaders of these Islamic parties, especially the Islamic Salvation Front, considered themselves as victims of a military coup plotted by the Algerian Army to infanticide the Islamic project in the country. For Islamists, the army confiscated the will of the public by using force. However, this impression of injustice said to be imposed by the regime on Islamists no longer had any influence on Algerians who held the National Salvation Front responsible for the disasters of the 1990s and the wounds that weren’t healing up yet.  

However, there were other structural and intellectual reasons related to the performance of these parties and their connection with certain ideological background. These parties failed in changing from traditional religious institutions into civil political ones that can provide solutions to the complicated problems facing Algerians. Algerians, who are 99% Muslims, are not in need of preaching and guidance of these Islamic parties. Instead, they expect those parties to provide solutions to problems like unemployment, homelessness and economic recession as well as other social and economic problems.    

One of the characteristics of these religious institutions is that they are still imprisoned by the idea of the inspired leader or Sheikh, and this sidelines any democratic practices inside these institutions which originally lack the institutional structure. All these parties have got what is called “Al Shura Council” which means an assembly that decides everything on behalf of all other members. These councils are usually elected in each province of Algeria and are in charge of decision making regarding strategic issues like participation in the elections. But, the truth is different; councils are not free to decide without the approval of the head of the party who usually has a super influence very similar to leaders of Sufis among their followers.   

The domination of supremacy of the inspired leader impaired the emergence of new young leaders for these political parties although some young leaders managed to make some change in the hierarchy of parties like Society of Peace Movement led by Abdul Razak Mukre and National Construction Movement led by Abdul Kader Ben Karena who replaced Mustafa Belmahdi. But, this change was not embodied on the ground as pattern of power circulation and the chance for empowering younger personnel to take over because both Ben Mukre and Ben Karena were much of the old generation. These two names had been dominating as supreme leadership ever since these parties were formed beginning of the 1990s. 

There was a necessity for empowering younger leaders who were more liberal and open. They could accept democratic practices more than older leaders who were repulsive to any internal democratic changes. They used to impair any effort to make democratic change applicable to high positions of these parties instead of just exploiting prominent figure for election purposes.

Although all Islamic parties reject any democratic practices for ideological reasons, the national and regional challenges have forced them to abandon these theocratic patterns and change into modern patterns of civil societies and political parties that pledge allegiance to democratically elected bodies. The experience of Tunisian Renaissance Movement is a good example to be followed in this regard when the leader of this movement, Rashed Al Ghanoushy decided to separate preaching activities from political ones and consequently converting int a civil party. Ghannouchi’s decision was not abrupt and accidental; it was preceded by ideological and thoughtful accumulation that continued for two decades.

Conflicts that are motivated by lust for power burst and exhausted Islamic Parties

The absence of democratic practices mainly led to fierce internal conflicts about leadership, and caused large-scale defections. This phenomenon appeared following the death of the founder of Society of Peace Movement, Mahfouz Nahnah in 2003. Just after his death, the movement witnessed a fierce conflict about inheriting his position. The conflict was decided in favor of Abi Jarrah Sultany who approved participation with the government. Such vision undermined his rank among his followers and caused him a high price to pay after a new strong trend in his movement bloomed and denied the concept of reconciliation and participation with the government.

The conflict between Abi Jarrah Sultany and his opponent Abdul Majeed Manasra ended with the defection of Abdul Majeed Manasra in 2009. Abdul Majeed Al Manasra founded a new movement named: “Proselytization and Change Movement”. The withdrawal of Abdul Majeed Al Manasra was the drop that flooded the cup, and the party went through fragmentation process. Ammar Ghul, a former leader, who was the Minister of Public labor, defected and joined those advocating the government. He established a new party named: “Gathering of Algeria Hope”. This gathering was much of a national party. Later, Ammar Ghul was mentioned in corruption files related to the longest highway project, which was the biggest infrastructure investment, through the four terms of Abdul Aziz Bu Taflika presidency.   

Proselytization and Change Movement was also taken by new defection trends and many of its leaders defected and established National Construction Movement in March 2013 under the leadership of Yousef Belmahdi, the strong former leader of Society of Peace Movement and a companion of Mahfouz Nahnah.  

It is a good reminder to say that this fragmentation goes back to the time of Mahfouz Nahnah especially when he supported President Abdul Aziz Bu Taflikah in the 1999 presidential election. Yet, Nahnah’s candidacy request was rejected, and these two events were just like an earthquake that hit the fragile structure of his movement. Some other subsequent aftershocks followed when major defections and collective resignations started. The party melted from inside with the defection of its members as a reaction to the decision to support Abdul Aziz Bu Taflika.

The anger inside and outside the movement remarkably increased following the pro-Taflikah stance, and mostly after the participation in the presidential alliance of three parties: Society of Peace Movement and the two government-related parties i.e. The National Liberation Front and the National Democratic Gathering. This alliance aimed at supporting President Abdul Aziz Bu Taflikah before his candidacy for a second term presidency in April 2004.

Other Islamic parties like Renaissance Party are suffering similar splits. This phenomenon sheds light on the basic problem facing these parties. Critical questions have been unanswered yet: Is it necessary to work with the ruling party, or not?

Renaissance Party, which was founded in 1989 as the Islamic Renaissance Movement and was inspired by Muslim Brothers, was later disjointed? end of 1990s as a result of the conflict between Al Habeeb Ademi and Abdullah Jab Allah. Al Habeeb Ademi called for dialogue with the government, whereas Jab Allah, the founder, was utterly opposing the government and he boycotted the presidential elections in 1995. He also refused to participate in the governmental alliance in 1997. Anyway, he was overthrown in 1989 and Al Habeeb Ademi. Ademi converted from opposing the regime to allying with it, and finally the party was part of the ruling regime.  

After he was overthrown, Abdullah Jab Allah founded a new party i.e. Reform Party. But, he didn’t stay for long and was again overthrown by Juhaid Younsi. On the10th of February he founded another party, Justice and Development Front which adopts a new Islamic reform course.

Arabic Spring and its aftershocks facing Algerian Islamists

There are other local and international factors that have affected the performance of Islamists in Algeria including, but not limited to, the setback of the Islamic project due to the aftermaths of so-called Arabic Spring Revolutions. Islamists, especially Muslim Brothers have found themselves in front of a high price caused by Arabic Spring Revolutions and their aftermaths. What happened in Egypt, the stronghold of Muslim Brothers, was a turning point for Algerian Islamists. Gulf States imposed pressure on Algeria to classify Muslim Brothers as a terrorist group despite the refusal of Algeria to do so. However, the large-scale campaign against Muslim Brothers throughout the Arab World has caused many aftershocks to Algerian Islamists.

Chaos and large-scale destruction that prevailed in the Arab World were exploited by Algerian Regime which keeps reminding Algerians of the horrors of the wave of bloody violence known as the Red Ten. This ghost has been utilized for advocating a big political project based on the potential risks that might encounter the country and take it to the unknown. The regime’s discourse implies charges of panic. The regime has been warning of the consequence of any tampering with the destiny of the country and undermining its security and stability. Time can not go anti-clockwise. The Red Ten has been a persistent ghost chasing Algerians.  

Exploiting the weakness of political Islam, the emergence of Salafism and its domination in Algeria aimed at spreading among younger generations. This was an obstacle in the way of political mobility in Algeria especially Mudkhali Salafism which was dominant. Mudkhalis consider that the right doctrine of Islam doesn’t allow opposing, competing with or criticizing the ruler. Mudkhalis consider any violation of this rule to be a violation of Islamic doctrine. So, it is no surprise that Algerian Salafists look at members of all other Islamic parties as Khawarij[1] just because they defy and oppose existing regimes and take part in demonstrations.

The Islamic Salvation Front was deprived from political participation; therefore, many Islamists suspected the existing Islamic parties and consider them to be part of the ruling system. This led to seclusion and boycott of the political process as a whole.

Some other factors are related to the essence of political process itself in terms of transparency and straightforwardness which affects the results of the elections. These factors cause reluctance on part of Algerians who boycott these elections because they have lost confidence in the possibility of making change through elections. The efficiency of elections has been suspected. Boycott indicators have shown this when only 35% of Algerians participated in the parliamentary elections on the 4th of May 2017. During the elections of November 2017, more than two million voting paper were annihilated.

Following years of fragmentation and conflicts, Islamic parties tried to restore their power through proposing new unification projects before the elections of May 2017 when Society of Peace Movement and Front of Change merged into one party. Renaissance Movement and Justice, Development Front and the National Construction Movement signed a strategic alliance document entitled: “Union for Renaissance, Justice and Construction”. This new alliance entered the election with one unified list in an attempt to change the election map. Nevertheless, these alliances never achieved the expected goals. On the contrary, the results were frustrating and significant. The Islamic Trend has lost most of its momentum and is going through its worst days. Unless these Islamic Parties do a thorough revision of their options and strategies for the time being and for the future, the prophecy of former Minister of Health and Ammara Ben Younis, head of the Algerian Public Movement, will come true as they said that the results of the latest elections were a sign of the end of political Islam in Algeria.

[1] Al Khawarej are members of a school of thought, that appeared in the first century of Islam during the First Fitna, the crisis of leadership after the death of Muhammad.