Signs of deal between Algeria’s rulers and Islamists to circumvent protests

Chenine’s rise to power points to prospects of other political deals between the regime and Islamist groups.
Saturday 13/07/2019
Fast-paced manoeuvres. New Speaker of the Algerian parliament Slimane Chenine (C) arrives to deliver a speech in Algiers, July 10. (AFP)
Fast-paced manoeuvres. New Speaker of the Algerian parliament Slimane Chenine (C) arrives to deliver a speech in Algiers, July 10. (AFP)

Fast-paced deals and manoeuvres in the Algerian parliament surprised the Algerian public when an Islamist was put on track to become speaker of parliament.

The move came amid talk of a deal struck between Islamists and authorities to contain the popular protest movement.

This would be the first time that the third most powerful position in the Algerian hierarchy was assigned to a figure not from parties loyal to the regime and from outside the national political current that dominates elected councils.

Members of the Algerian People’s National Assembly accepted the nomination of MP Slimane Chenine to lead the legislative body. The Islamist candidate received overwhelming support from parliament, which is dominated by the so-called loyalist parties. Those parties withdrew their candidates to allow Chenine to win by a comfortable margin.

Chenine replaces National Liberation Front (FLN) member Moaz Bouchareb, who resigned recently. Chenine is the first Islamist to lead a powerful institution in Algeria. The speaker’s position was monopolised by the FLN during the one-party period and later alternated between the FLN and the Democratic National Rally.

Chenine is the product of the political Islam school of thought. At the beginning of his political career, he joined the Society of Peace Movement, the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. A few years ago, he abandoned the Islamist party and joined the El Bina Movement, a splinter movement of the former Islamist bloc that join with other opposition movements to shake off the Muslim Brotherhood image.

Chenine is said to be one of the faces planted by the former intelligence apparatus in the Brotherhood to keep the movement under surveillance. He played the role of the opposition figure who would release the popular anger of the street and create a rift within the Islamists. It was part of the spectacle of democracy controlled by the usual circles of power.

Algerian observers say Chenine remains a graduate of the Muslim Brotherhood school, even if he disagrees with other Islamist parties on side issues and details.

The Islamists and parliamentary blocs that backed Chenine are trying to market the choice as a victory for the political opposition in Algeria and in line with demands from the Algerian street for political change. The sudden process, however, raises many questions about the surprising rapprochement between the ruling parties and the Islamists.

The ruling parties sacrificed their own candidates to make way for Chenine’s nomination and that fuelled suspicion that hidden interventions tried to create the semblance of a new political scene by misleading the Algerian public into thinking that the elections with parliament were in favour of an Islamist opposition candidate.

In reality, the scenario is indicative of the emergence of new coalitions and alliances to absorb street anger and prepare the way for the coming political landscape.

Algerian authorities have a history of recruiting and mobilising political Islam groups during the Black Decade. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, was used to counter the banned Islamic Salvation Front and encourage Islamist guerrillas to abandon their hideouts in the mountains.

Since his election to parliament in 2017 as a candidate of El Bina Movement, Chenine has kept a safe distance from the regime and loyalist parties. He is, however, known for soft stances towards the regime of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and political forces loyal to him.

The last-minute withdrawal by Mohamed Djemai, secretary-general of the FLN, of his candidacy for speaker, along with the sudden withdrawal of the other candidates, suggests a political deal was concluded between parliamentary blocs that hold the majority in parliament.

Furthermore, the nomination of an Islamist figure as speaker of the parliament would not have been possible without the approval of — or at least no objection from — the military establishment.

While the Hamas Movement and other opposition parties, such as the Workers’ Party, the Rally for Culture and Democracy and the Socialist Forces Front, opposed Chenine’s election, the coalition parties — Amal Algeria, Algerian Popular Movement, and the Democratic National Rally — and some independent MPs supported it before being joined by the FLN.

Chenine is a journalist by profession and owns El-Raed Study Centre and newspaper. His rise to power indicates the regime is looking to establish a new dynamic inside parliament to push its agenda. The other message is that the demand for dissolving parliament, because it is the result of controversial elections in 2017, is out of the question.

This development points to prospects of other political deals between the regime and Islamist groups. The goal could be to circumvent the popular movement and absorb the anger of the street and build a power advantage over the democratic current and the popular movement that continues to demand the departure of the regime and total political change.

This is all the more alarming after the escalation by army Chief-of-Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah speaking about what he called “dubious agents,” in reference to those demanding a civil state and supporters of Amazigh identity.