Burial of Islamist leader in Algeria a bellwether of fading Islamism
TUNIS - The burial of Algerian Islamist leader Abbassi Madani, whose Islamic Salvation Front dominated the country’s first free elections in the 1990s, drew relatively low attendance, which reflected the tribulations Islamists in the Maghreb face at home and abroad.
Madani’s followers said “hundreds of thousands” of supporters would attend prayers April 25 to pay Madani, who died April 24 in Qatar at the age of 88, tribute before his burial.
However, a crowd of 5,000-20,000 attended the rally in Algiers’s Belcourt district, a former stronghold of the Islamic Salvation Front, police said.
The event came while Algerians have been enjoying their greatest moment of freedom with hundreds of thousands of people marching each Friday since February 22 to press for political reforms to change the way the country has been ruled since independence 57 years ago.
The protests showed the societal shift from Islamism, which was a legitimising force for opposition by disgruntled youth.
Protesters, with a noticeable presence of women, have made unprecedented references to Algerian secularism-based nationalism and showed determination to incorporate global values of democracy, governance and tolerance in contrast to “us versus them” ideology and politics long advocated by Islamists in Algeria and the Maghreb.
“All the conditions are met to make the funeral a show of support that remains for the Islamic Salvation Front,” said political writer Nidal Alaoui. “The authorities made no effort to prevent that support from being displayed as they have interest in awakening the Islamist beast.”
Observers said attendance by Islamists was low compared to the numbers of people gathered for the farewell of pro-democracy leader Hocine Ait Ahmed in 2015 and popular artists such as Amar Ezzahi in 2016 and Matoub Lounes in 1998.
“When the death of artists moved more than the passing of Abbassi Madani, that means a big change in the mentalities of the people,” said Alaoui.
Sociologist and Algiers university teacher Said Benmerad saw in Madani’s burial the end of political Islam as the dominant political force that lures youth.
“I’m sure the political and warrior Islam has been buried with Abbassi Madani. The time of Madani and the time of his party are dead and very dead,” he said.
“Algerian youth are not willing to pay attention to the promises of paradise dangled by the Islamists,” said civic society activist Samir Bouakouir.
While Madani’s supporters wished “God will accept him in the paradise,” other Algerians posted comments on social media recalling the bloodshed Madani and his backers caused.
“All those people who asked celestial mercy for Madani could be either idiots or terrorists or maybe both,” said Mourad Boualem.
Myriam Hilal said: “My prayers and thinking go to all the victims of the Islamist terrorism in Algeria and abroad at this moment.”
An estimated 200,000 Algerians, most of them civilians, were killed in massacres blamed on Islamists during the 1992-2003 civil war.
Madani’s followers formed the Islamic Salvation Army to spearhead jihad before splitting into the Armed Islamic Group, which evolved into a jihadist group that became a branch of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.
Algeria’s Islamist jihadists pioneered tactics of gruesome killing and fighting, including hijacking planes, that were later used by al-Qaeda in its September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb mourned Madani and praised him for leaving a “heavy ideological inheritance, combat and values,” an indication of the blurred lines between jihadist groups and Islamist parties seeking power through elections.
Madani, following the same path as other Islamist leaders in the Maghreb, started with civic associations focused on “Islamic values” before growing into a political force.
In the 1960s, he established al Qiyam al Islamiya association, which was banned after he denounced the execution of Sayyid Qutb, who was convicted of plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Qutb’s Islamist theories inspired Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers and many Islamic extremists. For Algeria, it gave Madani ideological ammunition to the legacy of radicalism and bloodshed.