Many are looking at Algeria’s elections in terms of regional trends in North Africa. Last week, Foreign Policy published “A second chance for Algeria’s Islamists,” by Karina Piser looks at the electoral prospects for Algeria’s Islamist parties in the May elections. The article is worth reading. Piser’s conclusions are for the most part reasonable regarding Islamist performance potential: they may end up with a plurality of seats (or more) but the process itself remains within the control of the regime. The analysis is contestable and in someways leaves out important nuances but is not inherently or grievously wrong, though there are some points which require more unpacking and clarification.
There are a few things highly problematic about the article’s assumptions and its description and identification of Algerian political actors. The first is the use of the term le pouvoirto describe Algeria’s military-political elite. There are a variety of terms used in Algerian political discourse that describe approximately the same set of often shadowy and decisive actors – le système, le militaire, les généraux, or even les services (used to refer to the DRS, or intelligence services). The problem with all of these terms is that they reflect perceptions of power as opposed to reflecting power as it is used or as it might exist in Algeria. These terms help construct a view of Algerian politics in which there is a unitary actor at the core of the regime, all powerful, all knowing. But in Algeria’s factionalised and rent-based political regime all cannot be reduced to the “stern grip” of one actor or set of actors. The pouvoir is more a series of interlinked “clans” based on regional, professional, family, bureaucratic and social affiliations There are factions of this elite that are strongly uncomfortable with the “dubiously democratic” “series of laws” that Piser writes le pouvoir recently passed (some through parliament other by decrees). For example, Redha Malek, a well known figure in Algeria’s independence-era politics and a prominent hardliner on the Islamist issue (whose views speak to one section of the power elite’s worldview and whose personal power is circumscribed at least by his age and ideology), told Reuters he rejected any electoral results that brought Islamists to power and that he continues to “make no distinction between a moderate Islamist and a radical Islamist. For me, it’s one and the same thing. It’s the same aggressive ideology which wants to re-Islamicize a society which is already Muslim”. That the reforms that came through last year took as long as they did to come into force shows that this elite was either divided in how it sought to manage the political situation and therefore did not reach consensus until relatively late in 2011 or that Bouteflika’s health undermined an arrival at decisions or that this combination of fragmentation and a relatively weakened central authority made things less clear cut than Piser’s narrative allows. Accepting a narrative in which a basically monolithic and cohesive “powers that be” drops reforms and mechanises to pull strings here and there reflects many popular and foreign perceptions of Algeria’s political culture. But it does not reflect an attempt to understand why decisions are made or how they are made and what this says about the current political situation in Algeria. This blinds readers to questions of agency and glosses important environmental questions in Algerian politics, such as generational shifts, biases, opportunism, disparities in access to political resources and sectional interests. Some of this owes to a lack of information, a lack of interest, word-count limitations and editors who want simple stories. None of this is to deny the power of what is commonly called le pouvoir, the overwhelming psychological and technical influence of men without names and institutions without offices. It is to say that accepting such terms and units of analysis at face value does not add to the understanding of Algeria’s politics, especially not in 2012. This remains a habitual problem in political writing about Algeria.
The second comes in the description of the FLN as a “ardently secular” political party. The FLN is vaguely “secular” by Algerian standards, though the last decade and a half has seen the party take a more socially and religiously conservative line when compared to the other establishment party, the National Rally for Democracy (RND). This made many long-time secularists and leftist FLN members uncomfortable, driving them into the RND or into minor parties. Abdelaziz Belkhdem, the party’s divisive and unpopular ex-secretary general is a symbol of this, with his conspicuous zabiba and opponents who abusively label him a “cyrpto-Islamist”. One dimension to the anti-Belkhadem moves taken within the FLN over the last several years has been over his perceived religiosity and authoritarian tendencies (but one factor among several others addition to a number of other administrative and regional grievances). Support for the Algerian regime is not a function of Islamism or secularism, and the religious trend in the organs of the FLN and among its members is a notable feature of its adaptation to the post 1990s political environment.
Piser omits a discussion of the RND, the other main establish political party which has a larger number of seats in parliament than the FLN. The RND’s leadership has fewer of the prominent and public divisions seen in the FLN and it is unlikely the party will simply wither along with the FLN, which is likely to perform less well than in the past as a result of its divisions more than the special appeal of Islamist parties. The FLN and RND are party machines — like the MSP — and the manner in which these machines function will determine the broad outline of Algeria’s legislative elections, barring sudden and massive participation from an electorate that is mostly resigned to ignore or boycott the process. The historic opposition parties, like Ait Ahmed’s Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) and Louisa Hanoune’s Workers Party (PT) appear to be adjusted to the 2012 environment, the FFS appearing to work as a functionary set of the regime (see its behaviour in the Kabylia vis-a-vis the RCD and others; the RCD is boycotting the elections after falling from good graces with the regime near the end of last year).
Third, Piser’s discussion of the Islamist parties is too general and does not factor in the full range limitations they face. Islamist parties are likely to benefit from regime manipulation, low turnout and divisions within the FLN. But they are limited by their general lack of a mass, popular base, their poor relations with most of the former FIS and Salafi trend as well as mass voter apathy. Perhaps even more problematic for Algerian Islamists is the structure of the Algerian legislature (National People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament), which has relatively few powers when the massive weight of the Senate, which was created deliberately to render the lower house ineffectual and without the ability to contradict the executive (one third of the senate is appointed by the president; the rest is indirectly elected). While Piser notes the MSP is often seen as a puppet of the regime, she might well have noted the parties and personalities of the Green Algeria Alliance competed unsuccessfully against the FIS in the 1990-1992 process, were allowed to run in the 1995 and 1997 presidential and legislative elections, and, in the case of the MSP, were brought into the governing alliance from 2004-2011. The May 2012 elections are therefore their third chance, not their second.