One Kind of Response to Islamist Victories in the Maghreb

Abdallah Djaballah’s comments on the prospects for Algerian Islamists in next year’s parliamentary election have met a mixed response in Algeria. Some interesting comments in in response come from  Louisa Hanoune, head of the Workers Party (PT), a Trotskyist outfit and one of the major non-Islamist formal opposition parties. The PT has more seats in parliament than any other opposition party — unless the one of the parties in the presidential alliance (the National Liberation Front (FLN), the National Democratic Rally (RND) and the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP)) decides to leave governing coalition. To recap Djaballah told reporters he believed the Islamist trend in Algeria would certainly out perform competitors in the 2012 legislative elections if they were free and fair. Boudjerra Soltani, head of the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood (Movement for a Society of Peace) also made comments projecting favourable Islamist performance next year (in August he said ‘What is happening in the Arab world shows that the people want to be ruled by Islamists,’ and floated the idea of Islamist parties joining forces in the 2012 parliamentary election). Both based their comments in part on the strong showings of religious parties in the Tunisian, Egyptian and Moroccan elections and made their comments in the context of the Arab uprisings (or Arab Spring). Both come from Islamist parties and trends that were not historically alined with the Islamic Salvation Front that won Algeria’s storied 1991 elections. The MSP has been a part of Algeria’s three party ruling coalition since 2003. 

Some context. After parliament voted to revise the political parties law Hanoune, with a few other prominent politicians, called for the new law to be brought to the constitutional council for review. Hanoune blamed the deputies of the FLN and RND, who hold a strong majority in parliament, for ‘blocking’ real reform (it is notable that she said the parties blocked the president’s reform, rather than saying the reforms themselves were meaningless.) The new political party law did not lift the ban on the FIS or the legal prohibition on religious parties (or ethnic, regional and other semi-identitarian lines; parties claiming ‘exclusivity’ in the realm of identity, as the jargon goes — several of which are allowed to operate, not much different from how a similar law in Egypt bans religious parties and yet there Salafis are in run offs with the Ikhwan). Hanoune’s party was well known in the 1990s and early 2000s for supporting dialogue between the government and the FIS, which was banned after the military’s coup d’etat, despite its communism and secularism. In the 1990s, Hanoune was well regarded for supporting the rights of Islamists and detainees despite her own politics. he PT was a leading proponent of the Sant’Egidio Platform, the proposal drawn up to end the civil war in 1995 after negotiations between opposition figures and prominent notables in Rome. Hanoune was identified with the camp in the political class opposed to the ‘erradicationist’ policy and favoured allowing FIS leaders back into politics as a condition for national reconciliation and she used to show up at pro-dialogue rallies with leaders of the MSP in the 1990s. The government censored a television spot she filmed because she referred to the events of 1991-1992 as a ‘military coup’. She was known to deliver messages to foreign and United Nations officials on behalf of the families of political prisoners, Islamist and secular alike. She is a two time presidential candidate (in 2004 and 2009). Since 2007, the PT has been the largest opposition party in the lower house of parliament, the People’s National Assembly, with 26 seats although it is outnumbered by independents who hold 33 seats.

On the ‘Arab Spring,’ Hanoune has repeatedly said the uprisings and demonstrations that began last winter have been exploited by foreign powers who aim to expand international capitalism and promote foreign interventions in Arab affairs. Recent comments suggest she has added the spread of political Islam to the agenda of these powerful foreign hands. After dismissing the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ as ‘discriminatory and racist,’ Hanoune told journalists:

“Dès lors que les Occidentaux sont rassurés par rapport à leurs intérêts dans la région et dès lors qu’ils ont des garanties quant à la sécurité d’Israël, ils n’ont donc aucune raison d’avoir peur des islamistes, surtout que ces derniers   pas de doctrine économique, ils sont pour l’économie de bazar”, analyse-t-elle en ramenant tout ce qui se passe actuellement dans la région à la mise en œuvre, revue et corrigée, du fameux GMO, cher à George Walker Bush.

She went on to call for the president to dissolve the ‘discredited and illegitimate’ parliament (of which she is a member) and form a constituent assembly to develop and implement political reforms, waring that they would be ‘imposed from the outside’ if the government’s piecemeal reforms fail (Hanoune has urged this on numerous occasions). On the question of Islamists, Hanoune accused Djaballah and Islamists generally of being stooges of western imperialism, referring his comments after meetings with the American and French ambassadors after which he claimed he was told western governments ‘no longer fear Islamists’. Hanoune went on to quote Hilary Clinton as having pointed to Turkey’s lightly Islamist AK Party government as a ‘model’ for reform, saying ‘Turkey is the foundation of NATO, of privatisation, of US policy. It is not moderate Islamism’. ‘You have to ask who are they [Islamists]? What is the political and socio-economic vision of the Islamists? We know they are for free enterprise and globalisation [. . .]‘  She said she was ‘surprised’ Djaballah would anticipate Islamists winning a majority in parliament in the 2012 election since he no longer has a political party. She went on, dismissing the idea, promoted by Djaballah and other Islamists that Algerians were seeking a Islamists as an alternative to their past experience. Instead, Hanoune argued that

We have been through management of our communities by Islamists in 1990. We have experienced the power-sharing between Islamists and nationalists, democrats and others. Ennahda, under Abdallah Djaballah, participated in the government. The MSP is Islamist and is the government. We tried everything. This is not new and additionally, we had the national tragedy. Tunisia and Egypt, there is an absence of genuine democratic alternative. In Morocco, those who voted for the Islamist movement wanted to punish the parties who were in government [. . .]

Hanoune said ‘US theses’ (evidently referring to both academic writing and government studies) about Islamists’ rise in the region represent ambitions to spread influence and interfere in Arab affairs through religious parties and said she feared ‘an Afghanisation’ of the Arab region, calling the reaction of western governments to the rise of Islamists

An interference. It is not for the French or the American governments to decide who should be the majority and who should win the election in Algeria, Morocco, Egypt or elsewhere. It is the sovereign choice of the people. Islamist movement, which are a social reality in this region are not the majority. With an abstention near 50% in Tunisia and Morocco they did not even get 20% of the vote.

Of the US’s plan for the ‘Greater Middle East,’ Hanoune said,

told us the danger was Islam. And they associated terrorism with Islam; The US administrations exploited the issue of the fight against terrorism in order to interfere in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American administrations also helped the Taliban politically, financially and militarily before they came to power. After that it turned against them and declared war. Are we not witnessing the preparation of the same in the Mashreq and the Maghreb?

Some might quibble with Hanoune’s calculations or general line of critique. This thinking has some currency among Hanoune’s party cadres and carries a populist appeal in some parts of Algeria. It fits into her historic rhetoric on globalisation and western interests in Algeria. For example, see this leaked State Department cable (WikiLeaks) on the PT’s positioning during the campaign ahead of the 2007 parliamentary election.

¶7. (C) If voters are looking for specificity on issues, Louisa Hanoune’s Workers’ Party offers the most.  She calls on Algerians to “defend the national sovereignty and natural resources through a purely Algerian policy not dictated by outsiders.”  She often rails against the U.S. specifically, criticizing American policies in the Middle East and the recent Embassy warden message about a threat in Algiers.  Her public affairs officer, Abdelhamid Boubaghla, told us us that she and her party believe “foreigners want to impose their views on Algeria for the benefit of outsiders.”  He affirmed that the Workers’ Party would “put up roadblocks against any action opposing the Algerian people’s interests.”  As Louisa Hanoune is fond of saying at rallies, the Workers’ Party “rejects the government’s policy of privatization and seeks to guarantee and preserve Algerian sovereignty by keeping funds in the hands of the public and its trustees.”  She calls for the abolishment of the ministry responsible for privatizing state enterprises and describes the “rules and regulations of globalization” as a “genuine Tsunami for developing countries’ economies.” Hanoune also receives much applause when she calls on the government to provide water and electricity for Algerians, rather than selling off the country’s riches to foreigners.  (Comment:  It is notable that few Algerians publicly challenge Hanoune’s statist economics.  Her popularity among ordinary Algerians is indicative of the challenge the presidential coalition parties face in touting economic reform, which Algerians by and large see as benefiting the corrupt few, not the masses. End Comment.)

The framing of Hanoune’ comments about Islamist parties of late is simultaneously nationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-Islamist though not anti-Islamic. (Hanoune has mastered speaking against Islamist without sounding as if her objection was Islam as such; a common perception among some Algerians is that secularists, especially Sa’id Sadi of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), are against practicing Muslims or Islam rather than Islamist political ideologies. The PT has been well known for its opposition to Islamist politics, on economic, religious and even feminist grounds, though it did cooperate with the FIS and the MSP during the 1990s in lobbying for dialogue or in strikes, in the case of the former in 1990. These comments are mainly parochial, likely part of an effort to rally support going into the new year when she will hope to keep and increase the PT’s numbers in parliament; the party is the largest and most ideologically distinct opposition party in parliament as yet and Djaballah’s comments along with Boudjerra Soltani reportedly saying the MSP was mulling pulling out of government puts the PT’s position in jeopardy. Hanoune’s narrative is pushing an appeal to secularists and leftists anxious about regional trends in favour of Islamist parties by linking the religious trend to foreign imperialism and capitalism. There is a large element of leftist secularists (and others) to be found among former employees of state companies, professional women, the cadres of historic mass organisations and unions and even in the FLN who are uncomfortable with Algeria’s structural reforms and the rise of religion in politics (which have increased under Bouteflika, part of the attempt to give the religious credibility, hence the co-optation of the MSP and the prominence given to social conservatives in the FLN). Recent newspaper editorials and newspaper articles have focused on the Islamist trend in the Arab world and what its success elsewhere might mean for Algeria. A recent article described Algeria as being surrounded by ‘Islamists to the east and terrorists to the south’. Hanoune’s comments are a populist effort pointed at rallying Algerians with such feelings around her party. During the CNCD protest movement in January and February, Hanoune pulled a similar line, criticising it especially after the RCD became involved. Her early critiques were a part of a wider chorus within Algeria’s opposition and political class generally that was skeptical of the CNCD’s motivations, members (the most prominent of which is the right-wing RCD) as well as a sense that the protest movement might grow out of control. Hanoune was a vocal critic of winter 2010 riots and early 2011 protests and of foreign governments’ criticism of the Algerian regime’s response to them: when the State Department, European parliament and Élysée put out statements critical of the government’s handling of the 12 February demonstrations, Hanoune issued a fiery communique condemning foreign intervention in Algeria’s internal affairs and critiquing France’s and America’s treatment of ethnic minorities. On 10 February she wrote a long piece in her party’s newspaper Fraternité accusing the CNCD of being complicit in an RCD-led plot to lead an ‘Orange Revolution’ in Algeria, ‘concocted and financed by the imperialist powers’ and arguing for economic reforms that would, among other things, ‘a clean break with the European Union, the repeal of all the concessions made to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the return to full economic sovereignty’. Hanoune pointed out that the RCD opposed economic programs that injected public money into the economy. Her principal objections to the RCD’s leadership of the CNCD have focused on its right-wing orientation, accusing it of opportunism and mocking the protests’ small turn out by saying ‘of course workers would not march with the right wing!’ and that ‘half of them [the protesters] were journalists assigned to cover it, and there was no public involvement in the process.’ Her positioning on Arab uprisings is not categorical but the way Hanoune relates them to her party’s institutional position within the opposition and to the Algerian situation over all is that Algerians should see a reformist agenda (scrapping the IMF or ‘capitalist’ ones already taken and promoted) in order to avoid a ‘social revolution’ resulting from Algeria’s social and economic malaise and the government’s lack of popular legitimacy. Some of her rhetoric on this can be heard here and viewed in the video below, both from earlier this year.

For Hanoune, the formal Islamist parties are both electoral and ideological competitors. Algerian Islamist parties have generally taken well to capitalism (as have other Islamist movements) and market liberalisation, and have made little fuss over privatisation, for example. The PT has opposed the government’s lumbering liberalisation programme (such as the revision of the water code, the 2005 hydrocarbons law, etc.), and especially the lay offs that often accompany it, and the party has been at odds with the MSP, the other Islamist parties and parts of the FLN over a number of social issues, including the revisions made to the Family Code several years ago. (Hanoune was, however a strong supporter of the government’s reconciliation plan, although earlier this year she said the FIS was ‘responsible for the national tragedy’ (Civil War).) Like the formal Islamist parties, the PT has been co-opted by the regime for some time and it reaps the benefits of incumbency and its participation serves to legitimise the regime, which hurts the party’s popular credibility. The PT’s performance in 2007 owed something to the fact that Algeria’s other major left-wing party, the heavily Kabyle Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) boycotted the poles (the mostly Kabyle, hardcore secular and right wing RCD) probably benefited somewhat more from this as well). Hanoune’s comment that the Islamist parties are not a ‘majority’ in Algeria speaks to a fear of being washed aside if supporters of the Islamist parties rush to the polls in 2012 or if the results are managed by the government in a way that erodes the PT’s position in parliament in their favour in the case the regime attempts to sculpt the parliamentary composition in a way that accommodates the emerging narrative in the region, perhaps taking cues from the Moroccan example (Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci recently told French government officials to expect constitutional revisions by end of the second quarter of 2012). Something to watch.


5 thoughts on “One Kind of Response to Islamist Victories in the Maghreb

  1. I am not sure how connected this is, but at the conclusion of this interview Ramdane Tazibt, who is vice-president of the national assembly and one of the PT’s representatives in the national assembly states that his party is not opposed to the return of the FIS in politics. This just when the new law explicitly prohibits such a thing. I wonder if the PT is not trying to use the political capital it earned with the FIS sympathizers (through the history you describe in the post) to gain some support against the Djaballah/Soltani crowd.

    • Thanks for this link! I think you’re right; they have connections to the FIS infrastructure and there are rumours that they got a lot of people from the FIS’s support base in some districts in 1997 and 2002 with the blessing of the old FIS leaders informally. They have this scavenger tendency where they have been able to do what some constituencies want to do (oppose the regime in general, oppose socially conservative measures like alcohol laws or women’s issues, etc. or speak on human rights problems in formal settings) even when voters or even party members don’t support the whole programme. On the other hand the PT is one of the few parties (plus the FFS) that actually does see defending other ideologies and parties political rights as an issue of principle for a ‘democratic’ process, that a condition of being a democrat is that you have to be able to tolerate other trends even if you disagree or hate them, and vice versa etc.

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