Islamist ‘thorn’ sparks polarisation amid Algeria’s Hirak

Secularists argue that Islamists can only be accepted in the movement when they abandon their “fundamentalist agenda.”
Sunday 08/03/2020
Head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Algeria, the Movement for Peaceful Society, Abderrazak Makri, attends a news conference in Algiers, last September. (AFP)
A threat to unity. Head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Algeria, the Movement for Peaceful Society, Abderrazak Makri, attends a news conference in Algiers, last September. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algerians took to the streets for the 55th successive Friday on March 6, continuing their demands for broad changes in the military-dominated regime.

However, heated debate about attempts by Islamists to influence the pro-democracy movement revived polarisation between secularists and Islamists. Some describe Islamists as a “thorn” in the side of the Hirak, as the protest movement is known.

The dispute raised concerns that Islamists could disrupt the unity among protesters and leading figures despite ideological differences.

Algeria’s first experiment in multiparty elections in the 1990s backfired because of polarisation between secularists and Islamists, who assailed democracy as “heresy” and said the elections would be the “last vote” if they were to win.

Algeria plunged into a civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people after Islamists won elections in 1992 and established armed groups involved in massive bloodshed. That legacy has many Algerians reluctant to support Islamist groups.

“The Islamists know that it is impossible for them to gain power through support of people in the streets. That’s why they nurture ideas about disrupting the unity of the democratic movement,” said secularist opposition figure Said Saadi.

“The strategy of the Islamists is to ally themselves with the hard-pressed ruling authorities on the hope they would dominate the regime in the mid-term.”

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Algeria, the Movement for Peaceful Society, Abderrazak Makri, called secularists in the protests “members of Masonic movements and agents of (former colonial power) France.”

“These secularists do not want us to be part of the Hirak as if they own the Hirak,” he said. “They spread rumours against us to undermine our image.”

Algeria’s year-long protest movement has seen people across the country take to the streets in large numbers each week in peaceful demonstrations. The movement began February 22, 2019, when protesters mobilised to oppose long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid to seek a fifth term in office.

Bouteflika was ousted in April but protesters’ demands grew to include broad reforms of the military-dominated government.

Analysts said the protests have been a breakthrough for Algeria, moving the country beyond its fear of a resurgent Islamist threat to the public demanding serious democratic reforms.

Months of protests yielded results and many figures in Bouteflika’s regime once believed to be untouchable were jailed. However, efforts to stop presidential elections were unsuccessful and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister, was elected in December

Tebboune, who briefly served under Bouteflika, reached out to protesters, praising the movement as “democratic” and giving them some concessions. He recently said the “blessed Hirak saved the country from a total collapse.”

Islamists kept a low profile in the protests after demonstrators rejected their attempts to lead the movement. Makri, however, said Islamists represent an important voice and should not be sidelined.

“We have been marching in the Hirak for more than one year. We are present in all regions,” said Makri, who threatened to organise “Islamists only” protests.

“Unfortunately, there is a political and ideological current that seeks to sow division among Algerians. I blame the radical secularist current, which aims to monopolise the Hirak,” he said. “We know their names and their organisations. They have websites financed by foreigners and they have associations linked to Masonic groups.”

The debate over relations between Islamists and secularists in the Hirak erupted when protest leader Mustapha Bouchachi and two Hirak figures visited Islamist leader Ali Belhadj the day the Hirak marked its first anniversary, February 22.

Activists dismissed the visit as a “whitewashing” of Belhadj’s “bloody record.”

Belhadj, who once led the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front that many Algerians blame for the civil war, is under state surveillance.

One activist wrote on social media: “We cannot successfully fight for democracy with people who see democracy as heresy.”

Bouchachi defended the visit, saying “Belhadj is suffering from serious violations of his rights. I visited him out of my convictions as a campaigner for human rights. There is no political project behind such visit.”

Saadi responded: “It is one thing to defend the civic rights of a man. We will never hesitate to do that. But it is another issue when an uprising by citizens for democracy endorses the record, stands and convictions of this man, his project and past. That is what is happening now after this visit.”

Saadi and other secularists argue that Islamists can only be accepted in the movement when they abandon their “fundamentalist agenda.”

“The Algerian question will find its way of resolution when what remains of the temptations of the Muslim fundamentalism becomes a conservative political current,” said Saadi.

Mohamed Benchicou, a secularist who shared time in prison with Belhadj, said “Belhadj has not changed and he sticks to his ideas.”

“He deliberately lets other people draw profiles of him as a changed man. He finds that amazing,” said Benchicou. “That is why the initiative by Bouchachi and others to visit him is more than an error, a fault. The visit is an act of deception to use the prestige of the Hirak for the benefit of a person who declares himself openly and publicly as the enemy of democracy.”

For many secularists, coexistence with Islamists on the political scene presents a serious dilemma over how to build a functioning multiparty democracy.

“Those who want the exclusion of the Islamists put themselves in a big contradiction,” said protest figure Lahouari Addi. “They demand that the military does not dominate the state and at the same time want to shut out the Islamists, which represent up to 20% of the electorate.”

“How we can exclude the Islamists if we do not call the army to do that?” he asked. “What can we do to achieve that?”

While the Hirak is viewed as a uniting force for Algerians, it has yet to effectively address polarisation between Islamists and secularists.

“The Hirak is bringing Algerians together in their diversities but (the movement) has yet to free the movement of the thorn of the Islamists,” said political writer Ahmed Merad.