Algeria’s symbolic fountain stands its ground in battle of ideas

Algerian secularist intellectuals view the fight over the statue as part of the battle of ideas against the Islamists.
Sunday 08/04/2018
Ain El Fouara Fountain in the eastern Algerian city of Setif after it was vandalised, last year. (AFP)
Societal divide. Ain El Fouara Fountain in the eastern Algerian city of Setif after it was vandalised, last year. (AFP)

TUNIS - Controversy over the location of a statue of a nude woman in Setif has, over the past 20 years, come to reflect Islamists’ attempts to take the social initiative despite their political minority status in Algeria.

The fixation with the 120-year-old Ain El Fouara Fountain in the eastern Algerian city manifested itself in April 1997 when jihadists bombed the sculpture of a naked woman. The attack took place at the height of the civil war between Islamist insurgents and the powerful military of the secular regime.

Encouraged by local imams, Islamists attacked the statue with a hammer and chisel in 2006. They repeated the act in December and, in March, Islamists urged the government to move the statue to a museum, claiming the artwork offended “Algerian standards of public decency.”

Many Algerians are seemingly more attracted than offended by the fountain, which has water flowing from a well beneath the statue. It is the place where many go to make vows or seek good luck.

Some Islamists want the statue replaced with a plaque to mark the massacre of civilians during the French occupation in Setif in 1945. The French built the fountain and added the statue to it in 1899 based on a design by French sculptor Francis de Saint-Vidal.

Algerian Minister of Culture Azzedine Mihoubi is not yielding on the issue.

“It is not the Ain El Fouara statue that ought to be put in a museum. It is rather the ideas of those who clamour for that,” he told parliament on March 22 in reply to a question from Islamist MP Beldia Khemri.

“The issue of El Fouara goes beyond Setif. It is part of a broad issue that involves the future of Algeria,” said MP Salah Dekhili, from Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s Democratic National Rally party.

Algerian secularist intellectuals view the fight over the statue as part of the battle of ideas against the Islamists and expressed concern that Islamists could be broadening their influence in the country.

Writer Ali Boukhlef said Islamists are everywhere — “in the mosques of the republic, clandestine prayer rooms, markets, schools, youth centres, hammams and more seriously on offshore television stations.”

The government seems ambivalent about any counter move and many Islamist activists and preachers claim they have no political agendas.

The 2017 local and parliamentary elections in Algeria indicated that the clout of political Islam was shrinking. Three Islamist parties together won 67 seats in the 462-member parliament and 57 seats from a total of 1,541 seats in local elections.

Secularist intellectuals in Algeria, however, see Islamist movements’ influence as growing and are wary of a bottom-up strategy targeting the reins of power.

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