At the beginning of last year, when protests built some steam in Algeria, its public face was young, democratic and mostly secular. But Islamists understood that the times were changing as well. Bouguerra Soltani, captain of the MSP-HAMAS, an Islamist party with Muslim Brotherhood connections and a member of the ruling coalition in Algeria for a decade, challenged the ruling parties in interviews and projected that a full democratic course had become inevitable. Abdallah Djaballah, one of the few consistent Islamist opposition figures in Algeria, also made appeals for further democratization and drew up his own plans for political reform. In the few moments when Islamists and democracy advocates pushed Bouteflika last year, as in pressing him in the parliament to repeal a deeply unpopular Emergency State Rule law, they won substantive concessions.
One could have hoped that these concessions and the success of united protest movements elsewhere in the region might have given enough impetus for the secular and Islamist wings of the opposition to unite forces, dramatically alter the composition of the parliament, push Bouteflika even harder and make an effective call for a new constitution.
At this point in the game, all of that seems unlikely. Much of the reason has to do with the Islamist electoral sweep in Tunisia and Egypt, which has heightened Islamist expectations for the same in Algeria. So high, in fact, that Soltani, in a game-changing move, pulled his party out of the presidential alliance last month and announced that Islamists would win a majority in parliamentary elections this May. As I’ve posted before, Algerian Islamists possess a formidable electoral base in Algeria which scholars have too often dismissed, and it is probable that Islamist parties will see their electoral numbers go up thanks to the region’s mood. However, if Soltani wants Islamists to take over parliament, and then drive for reform, he has his work cut out for him.
One of the greatest roadblocks to Soltani’s aspirations is that contemporary Islamism in Algeria is cut up into sharp divisions. No less than four major Islamist-inspired parties, in fact, will be contesting the elections in May, including Djaballah’s Front pour la Justice et le Développement and Abdelmadjid Menasra’s Front du Changement. Djaballah’s opposition credentials are beyond doubt and Menasra, a former MSP leader who split from Soltani after the party’s founder, Mahfoud Nahnah, died, is as impeccable and politically astute as they come. While Soltani has said that negotiations are in the way for the formation of an united Islamic political front, it is hard to imagine either Menasra or Djaballah working for the MSP under Soltani. Djaballah has consistently rejected offers to join other Islamists for more than twenty years now, and Menasra and Soltani are locked in personal conflicts which are difficult to sort out. Many Islamists, in fact, bitterly dislike Soltani, accusing him of too much compromise on the one hand and too much authoritarian party politics on the other. And Algerians, unlike Tunisians and Egyptians, have already had the time to experience buyer’s remorse when it comes to Islamist electoral gifts. After twenty years of elections and ten years in political positions of some import, Islamist parties have garnered only modest political achievements and their electoral shares have declined somewhat in recent years.
The Islamist push towards the parliament also signifies that little energy is being devoted to a political alliance between Islamist and secular parties. As it is, Algerian secular democrats already have bad memories of protests which they started and that finished with Islamists winning elections. It is doubtful, however, that Soltani can achieve real reform in Algeria without them right now. These divisions, naturally, play into Bouteflika’s hand, and make substantive political reform in Algeria an elusive task.
This does not imply that Islamists or secular parties will not be able to take advantage of elections in May to confront the regime and push for more political changes. But in order to do so, Algerian opposition parties cannot assume that the winds of the moment will be enough to get them there. Which means that Soltani and company will have to pound the pavement with some convincing mobilization strategies or the road to gradual reform in Algeria will be very gradual indeed.