Algerian Islamists in the Era of Reconciliation

Recently, the Economist ran two articles on Arab politics, one focusing on the Muslim Brotherhood and the other focusing on Arab oppositions in general. In both cases, the Maghreb is poorly addressed, referenced only in passing in the first one (while curiously leaving out the two Maghrebine that have active branches of the Brotherhood, Algeria and Mauritania) and somewhat more extensively in the second, though still inadequately.

The first article focuses on the Egyptian and Jordanian Brotherhoods. The Egyptians are “determined to crush,” the Brotherhood, and its large membership is divided along generational and ideological lines. In Jordan’s case, moderate Brothers have been allowed to sit in parliament, though the government has dealt them several serious blows following the invasion of Iraq, and has seen changes in leadership, specifically the rise of a Palestinian chief. In Syria, the party has allied with the government, praising its patronage of Hamas (the Palestinian Brotherhood) and resistance against Israel. “Such shifts of convenience have sometimes damaged the Brotherhood’s reputation. But its decline in some countries is owing instead to a failure to fulfil its promises to bring about change.” It describes the North African Brotherhoods (mentioning only Tunisia and Libya) as “banned and persecuted.” This ignores, as said above, the Algerian Brotherhood — the Movement for a Society of Peace (aka HAMAS, or MSP), and the breakaway parties en-Nahdah and el-Islah — as well as the Mauritanian one, Tawassoul. In both of these cases, the party operates openly, in Algeria serving as the third leg of the tripartite governing alliance, and in Mauritania as an active part of the opposition, though it has recently changed its positing in part (more on that later).

If the notion of a Brotherhood engaged in peaceful collaboration with a secular government for progressive aims sounds too good to be true, it is. The Algerian case is an alternative scenario borne of Algeria’s troubled recent history, but the motives behind it — the preservation of the elite and breaking the popular will to rebel — remain the same. Here, the intention is to address the Brotherhood in the context of Algeria’s decade of “peace and national reconciliation“. The Mauritanian branch will be addressed in a later post.

The Lesser of Two Evils or the Triumph of Moderation?

In Algeria, the Brotherhood has actively engaged the government, going back to the 1988-1992 period, when it refused to join the radical Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), to that party’s consternation and ire. Its leaders rejected the notion that Islam could be the preview of one party alone and doubted the possibility of imposing an Islamic state wholesale. The Algerian Brotherhood purposefully distanced itself from much of the radicalism in the FIS, the members of both tendencies often coming to blows in mosques and on the streets before the fateful elections that precipitated the Civil War. And the MSP never formed a militia or took part in the orgy of violence that came from the FIS’s radical fringes after the coup, and did not face as severe crackdowns and bans the FIS. The FIS rejected outright an offer for an Islamist alliance from the MSP’s leadership in 1990. The MSP kept out of the In the context of Algerian politics, MSP was (and is) a moderate Islamist party.

Though parties based on religion, language, region, ethnicity or other forms of identity are explicitly banned in the Algerian Constitution, the party, along with smaller offshoots, have managed to stay on by changing their names and revising the wording of their platforms: the MSP was formerly harakat al-ijtima’at al-islami (Movement for an Islamic Society), but changed its name to harakat al-ijtima’at as-slim (Movement for a Society of Peace), after the 1996 Constitution. That stipulation, it should be mentioned, was added to the constitution after the 1995 presidential election, in which Mahfoud Nahnah, the historic leader of MSP and the Algerian Brotherhood at large, came in second to Gen. Lamine Zeroual, with 25% of the vote. While the FIS was banned and no one in the elite had (or has even today) the intention of legalizing the FIS, it was from that point recognized out rightly that there was a need to include some form of the Islamist tendency in government if the “transition” out of Civil War would be considered even remotely legitimate. That the MSP and the smaller and more radical en-Nahdah and el-Islah parties (which both suffer from regime manipulation and egoist rivalries among their leaderships) have been tolerated, in general, over the last fifteen or so years shows an active effort on the part of the regime to co-opt the Islamist tendency without conceding significantly to the FIS and the Salafist movement.

After Nahnah’s death, Boudjerra Soltani took over the leadership of the MSP and has continued the party’s policy of non-confrontation with the regime, damaging the party’s credibility with the public, but ensuring that much of the party’s policy program has found its way into legislation, as the third largest bloc in parliament, although the organization is at the total mercy of the larger and vastly more powerful FLN and RND: in the 2009 presidential election MSP did not even bother to field its own candidate, putting its weight behind incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The two break away factions, which huddle in the opposition, took different approaches: el-Islah’s leader, Abdallah Djeballah boycotted the poll, while Djihad Younsi took part anyhow. Unlike the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian Brotherhoods, MSP operates freely, with access to the State apparatus and with the support of the elite. The gradualist approach that Nahnah advocated for so vigorously has paid off. Outside of Egypt, the MSP is very likely the single most successful Arab branch of the Muslim Brotherhood today.

The breakaway branches have had their activities curtailed, but the main branch lives on alongside generally secularist establishment parties.¹ Conflicts within the party came to a head last year, with members of the party establishment (led by Abdelmadjid Menasra) criticizing Soltani’s leadership as overbearing, a frequent refrain in Algerian politics and likely indicative of personal desires for power than conviction. Soltani remains at the top of the party and it is unlikely that the party will implode in the near future, barring a major political upheaval in the country at large. The MSP, curious in the Brotherhood’s wider context, has served to offer the regime an aesthetic of legitimacy, as a part of the longer term process of national reconciliation.

Whose Islamism?

What is unclear, though, is to what extent the Brotherhood is actually representative of the Algerian Islamist tendency in general. The FIS handily overshadowed the MSP in the early 1990’s, and while Nahnah did well in 1995, all the indications available over the last decade — voter turnout in the parliamentary polls and presidential elections — show that few Algerians care enough about the MSP to mobilize on their behalf. Most Algerians remain disengaged from politics, bitterly apathetic and alienated from the political class. This is especially true in urban areas, where the FIS and other ideological movements (e.g., Berberism, and various forms of communism, socialism, etc.) have been strongest historically. The FIS approach to society was more powerfully Salafi than the MSP’s is, more universalizing and more radical. It is unlikely that much of the FIS’s mass base has settled for the MSP; rather, it is more probably the case that these people have resigned to the apolitical Salafism that is especially popular around the big cities and towns, well described by Amel Boubekeur last year. None of the major Islamists have pulled in more than 10% of the vote in the last three presidential elections, and while one must admit the existence of pervasive fraud, he should also bear in mind that official figures on voter turnout have been massively inflated, particularly in the urban centers, and that even in the regions (such as the Sahara and eastern Algeria) where voter turn is historically high regardless of manipulation, these men did poorly (even as the historic leadership leadership of the Brotherhood in Algeria hails from those areas disproportionately). Their numbers in parliament hardly compare with those of the two dominant parties, the FLN and RND.² Not only do these moderate men of politics hold little appeal to the Salafist crowd, but they also explicitly put distance between themselves and the movement Islamists in whose long beards, djellebas, blanket-covered wives and clan-sized nuclear families they find embarrassment. The Islamists in power have adopted the aesthetics of power as they are appreciated and expected among the secular elite. Additionally, one must also note that those who put their hopes behind the FIS have taken on the same scornful apathy of those who supported the Berber or feminist movements, dismissing the suit-clad, jewelry wearing career Islamists now sitting as ministers and MPs as khubzistes, men out of touch with the common man, looking only to get their daily bread through the acquisition of power, and who best illustrate the view that the State is a domain in which good men generally have no part.

Alle identifies three tendencies among the FIS’s former leaders: (1) “uneasy collaboration”; (2) “abstention/exile” and; (3) “resistance,” from the pulpit. The second inclination is the most popular; the third the most dangerous for both its practitioners and society at large. That the State continues to struggle to find a means of integrating the mass base of the FIS and its leadership points to an important possible breaking point in the short term.

He further notes the enduring power of Islamist populism among the urban population, the main reason that public demonstrations are banned. That the urban population has been unmotivated to turn out for parliamentary votes, when Islamist candidates are readily available, would seem to indicate that the system that was established with the intention of resolving, or at least managing, the political conflicts that drove the Civil War and the demands for what Hugh Roberts has described as the “moral polity,” has failed to accomplish its goals. Instead, what has taken place is neither democratization nor reconciliation. The result has been that, as the Economist writes of the Arabs in general, Algerian Islamists “are not becoming less pious, but the pious are beginning to question the point of participating in politics.”

The Road to the Hereafter

While the Algerian regime has cconvinced much of the rest of the opposition, made of minor parties lacking important mass urban bases (here I would depart from the Economist‘s description of a “rich array of serious-minded parties,” and say a multiplicity of like-minded parties, divided by the personalities and ambitions, allowing for at least two parties for each ideological tendency), to adopt middle class values and to watch their tongues, while appropriating elements of their platforms and allowing their leaders paid seats in parliament or the ministries, it has failed to win back the lost generation of 1988. These people, who watched their comrades get mowed down by the State in October of 1988 and then in the pandemonium that followed the 1992 coup, would appear not to have found solace in the reconciliation process, which has banned many of them from political activity anyhow. And the young people who spent their childhoods at the mercy of armed militias and the army, or running from tear gas canisters, seem to be no more prepared to roll over, either. Many of the former maquisards who came back from bush have found that the popular opinion summed up in the Kabyle phrase ulach s’mah ulach (“no forgiveness, none”) applies not only to the security forces, but also to themselves. And the vision of a society governed by the rule of law — the essential demand expressed by all of the urban mass movements in Algeria — is nowhere to be found except in the relatively rural areas and Salafi communities one finds around the big cities and towns, where the politics of the State are hardly discussed and the Utopian dream lives on. Young men continue to sit hungry and jobless during the day and riot during the night. Others find respite from the State in Sufi orders, though even those cannot escape the government’s reach.

The “success” of the Algerian Brotherhood is due in large part to the peculiarities of Algeria’s recent history. To the MSP’s (and the rest of the governing caste) greatest benefit is perhaps that Algerians, by and large, prefer not vote. In contrast to the eastern Brotherhoods, the Algerian Brotherhood has served to provide the new political arrangement with air of representativeness and legitimacy. In the ruling coalition, all of the major elements that waged the savage Civil War find some form of representation: the military hard line and establishment pragmatists are divided between the FLN and RND while the Islamists, supposedly, have their say in the MSP. In a country where a once vibrant civil society is now as moribund and absent as it was some thirty years ago — when associations outside of State control were illegal — and what might be considered historically “legitimate” or “authentic” forms of Islamism or independent political leadership are banned, broken or heavily sullied — such as Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi’s Wafaa party and all elements of the old Left– one must wonder if the exceptional positioning Brotherhood, and the wider political arrangement for that matter, represent some kind of “progress” or simply the crippled state of the Algerian opposition in general. After nearly ten years of bedlam and another ten of “reconciliation,” during which civil society has been dismantled and no lasting institutions established, he might, in fact, ask himself if Algeria has seen anything like “progress” at all.

Algeria today, for all the parliamentary dressing and talk of a “coalition” government, is more like the authoritarian People’s Democratic and Popular Republic of the 1970’s, with all elements of political life essentially dependent on the grace of the shrewd grace of a clan leader: Abdelaziz Bouteflika. A steady de-liberalization of the 1996 Constitution and erosion of civil society has taken place over the last decade, leaving behind little of the transitional process that so many savored in the late 1990’s. As Jacob Mundy wrote earlier this year: the reason Bouteflika was so quick to end the two term cap on his presidency was more than his own personal ambitions, which are large, but rather that in the political regime he has set up “there seems to be no other political force in Algeria capable of replacing the old chieftain”. That is, even with the integration of the Brotherhood into the ruling strata, the elimination of the politicized praetorian class, Algeria in 2009 has a political outlook that is no more certain or stable than that of Algeria in 1979 or 1989.


1. The process of fragmentation goes as follows: The MSP has its roots in the Islamist movement stemming from the Association of Algerian Ulema, which was taken over by the government in the mid-1970’s (while all the rest of Algerian civil society was being “nationalized”). It formed from Nahnah’s el-islah wal-el-irchad (Reform and Guidance), which itself had ties to the social welfare groups of Ahmed Sahnoun and Abdel-Latif Soltani (as well as many landed owners linked to the reformist tendency). MSP officially organized on the third anniversary of the Palestinian Intifada, deliberately — its abbreviation, HAMAS, is neither a coincidence nor an accident. It was lead by Mahfoud Nahnah until his death in 2003. Boudjerra Soltani is the current leader. En-Nahdah, not to be confused with the Tunisian party of the same name, was founded by Abdallah Djeballah in 1989, more radical ideologically than the MSP, its members sometimes claiming to represent the Brotherhood tendency, though the international Brotherhood recognized only the MSP as its Algerian branch, and continues to do so. Djeballah’s economic attitude was distinct from the rest of the Islamist movement. In 1998, Djeballah was forced out of the party by a clan led by Lahbib Adami, likely the result of regime meddling. He then founded el-Islah. While it did well in the 2002 parliamentary elections, besting MSP by five seats. When el-Islah attempted to play opposition, the government courted the MSP, and members defected away from Djeballah’s leadership, causing Djeballah and a large loyalist faction to boycott, decimating the party in the 2007 parliamentary polls, dropping 40 of its previously 43 seats. While Djeballah boycotted the most recent parliamentary polls, Djahid Younsi stood on the el-Islah ticket and won 1.37% of the vote. Though the MSP at one point supported revisions to the Family Code, all three of the parties with roots in the Brotherhood now have no notable objections to it as is. On the whole, the MSP is the less popular of the three at the grassroots level, most of the movement’s constituency preferring Djeballah’s oppositionist stance to the MSP’s positioning, which has, in effect, made it accountable first and foremost to the regime. However, because the MSP has sided so closely with the government, and el-Islah has essentially abdicated into the position of rejection by non-participation favored by the historic opposition movements — e.g. the FFS and nowadays the Salafists — there is a deficit in credibility for the MSP and en-Nahdah, both of which are seen as puppets of the regime in general. So while above it is mentioned the Salafist element has major doubts and aversions to the parties “engaging” the regime, many in the comparatively small base of those same parties do as well, as evidenced by the lack of turnout in all of the recent parliamentary elections and the relative decline in the increases in the number of seats held by them.

2. At no point has any of the three Brotherhood-oriented parties achieved more than 100 seats in the lower house of parliament, even after the MSP joined the ruling coalition, a testament to the twofold anxiety felt among the elite that a parliament home to too many Islamists would turn against the establishment or cause resistance from the military.


8 thoughts on “Algerian Islamists in the Era of Reconciliation

  1. I even did not know that an MSP existed after the FIS and other GIAs were banned. Needs a careful reading to understand this. Thanks Kal for improving our understanding of this issue. I could not get it fromthe reports of the Intrnational Crisis Group’s reports on islamism in North Africa. I can ‘t wait to read on Tawassoul and I guess they will do exactly as MSP.

  2. Wondering why it is the Canadians trying to bring charges against Belaouar now and not the French (4 innocents tourists killed near Aleg in 2007) ot the Mauritanians (Lemgheity, El Ghallawiya, Aleg and other psychological distress for its 3 million inhabitants from 2005 to now). Belaouar making a surrender deal it seems to save him from Canadian courts. This will look like El Para case where a country refused legal cooperation with another one for his prosecution, when the guy was under custody by one of them. All this smells rotten fish.

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