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Algeria Islamists dream of Arab spring factor

Published May 7, 2012


Algiers - Algeria's Islamists are hoping they can surf the post-Arab Spring “green wave” and win Thursday's polls, but divisions and dark memories of their previous electoral victory could hamper their chances.

After previously banned Islamist movements seized upon the wind of change sweeping the region to win polls in neighbouring Tunisia and Morocco, Algeria's Islamists were bristling with confidence ahead of the legislative election.

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“Our alliance will be the top political force in the next national popular assembly,” Kamel Mida, a spokesman for the Green Algeria movement, which groups three of the seven Islamist parties contesting the May 10 vote.

Several factors set Algeria apart however, not least among them the fact that the Islamists are already in power.

Mida belongs to the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which until January had a three-way alliance with the parties of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia.

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But the party, which has 51 out of 389 seats in the outgoing assembly, left the alliance to join forces for the election campaign with Islamist parties Ennahda (Renaissance) and El-Islah (Reform).

It nevertheless kept its four ministers in the government.

Mida told AFP he could see Green Algeria sweeping “at least 120 seats” in the enlarged 462-strong house.

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“Islamist voters will take part in the ballot,” he said.

“During the election campaign, they turned out en masse, while our opponents struggled for numbers at their rallies and will suffer from voter disaffection.”

Abdallah Djaballah, the founder of the more radical Justice and Development Front, was equally optimistic, “because the Algerian people is Muslim.”

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Many analysts and politicians however, including some in the Islamist camp, doubt the Islamists can record a major breakthrough.

“The likelihood of a crushing victory in the upcoming legislative vote is almost non-existent,” Nacer Djabi, a sociologist and political pundit, said.

“They are too divided,” he argued.

Abdelaziz Belkhadem, chairman of the president's National Liberation Front (FLN) party, also argued there was no risk of a “Green landslide”.

“Islamist parties will muster no more than 35 to 40 percent,” he predicted.

The Algeria scenario also differs from so-called Arab Spring countries because the Islamists here have already had their revolution.

It was two decades ago - but the scars are still raw.

When Algeria held its first multi-party elections in December 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round handily.

That prompted the army to halt the electoral process in January of the following year and launch a crackdown.

The FIS was disbanded, various Islamist groups emerged - Al Qaeda's North African branch is the latest incarnation of one of them - and the ensuing civil war killed up to 200 000 people, bringing the country to its knees.

“Algeria has already been through this experience in 1991 and history will not repeat itself,” Belkhadem said.

The legacy of what Algerians often refer to as “the dark years” has left the Islamists weakened and divided, said Louisa Hanoune, secretary general of the opposition Workers Party.

“The Algerian people learned the lessons from the Islamist episode and want to avoid a repeat of this national tragedy at all costs,” she said.

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia made this a campaign argument in the run-up to Thursday's polls, reminding voters that “they have already paid a heavy price” and arguing he could see no Arab Spring, but rather an “Arab Plague”.

Protests over the cost of living in broke out in Algeria in January 2011, only days after the beginning of the uprising in Arab Spring trailblazers Tunisia, leaving at least five dead and some 800 wounded.

But the Islamists failed to piggyback the movement, which was led mainly by youths born during the worst years of the civil war who were little inclined to team up with religious groups.

“The regime has taken all necessary steps to prevent an Islamist victory,” political analyst Ismail Maaraf said.

Bouteflika late last year pushed through a raft of political reforms, authorising new parties but banning any former FIS member from creating one or running for office.

Abdelmajid Menasra, an MSP dissident and former industry minister who founded the Front for Change, predicted that the presence of 44 parties in Thursday's race “will scatter the vote and yield a weak and fragmented parliament.” - Sapa-AFP

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