Riding the green wave: Algeria's Islamists hopeful of Arab Spring factor

Divisions and dark memories of their previous electoral victory could hamper their chances at Thursday's polls.

A campaign volunteer from the "Green" alliance of Islamist parties sticks a pamphlet in shirt pocket of a sceptical passer-by in the Harache neighbourhood of Algiers.
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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 Tunisia and Morocco, Algeria's Islamists were bristling with confidence ahead of the legislative election.

"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 vote.

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

Mr 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 the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and the prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia.

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 and El-Islah.

It nevertheless kept its four ministers in the government.

Mr Mida said he could see Green Algeria sweeping "at least 120 seats" in the enlarged 462-seat house.

"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 hardline Justice and Development Front, was equally optimistic, "because the Algerian people are Muslim".

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," said Nacer Djabi, a sociologist and political pundit. "They are too divided."

Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the 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 per cent," he said.

The Algeria scenario also differs from 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 multiparty 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 in the Islamic Maghreb is the latest incarnation of one of them - and the ensuing civil war killed up to 200,000 people.

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

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

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

Mr Ouyahia, the prime minister, 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 Tunisia, leaving at least five dead and hundreds 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 main parties in Algeria’s legislative elections

The National Liberation Front (FLN)

The FLN has dominated Algeria’s political life since the war of independence from France and was Algeria’s single party until 1989. Its honorary chairman is President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

It won 136 seats out of 389 up for grabs in the previous legislative polls in 2007 and joined two other parties in a governing coalition.

The National Rally for Democracy (RND)

The RND was founded by close aides to the former president Liamine Zeroual and its base initially consisted of “patriots” who fought against Islamist groups during the civil war in the 90s.

The RND is led by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, who is described as close to the powerful military and a member of the so-called “eradicators” faction which advocates the toughest line against Islamism.

It has 62 lawmakers in the outgoing assembly who are part of the FLN-led governing alliance.

The Movement of Society for Peace (MSP)

The MSP, led by Bouguerra Soltani, was founded in 1990 when one-party rule was ended and is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was initially known as Hamas.

It did not join the more radical Islamic Salvation Front during the civil war and remained loyal to the FLN president, becoming Algeria’s largest legal Islamist party.

It won 51 seats in 2007 and joined a governing coalition.

The Socialist Forces Front (FFS)

The FFS was founded in 1963, a year after independence, and is Algeria’s oldest opposition party. It is a secularist party and a member of the Socialist International.

The party is led by founding member Hocine Ait Ahmed.

The FFS ended 10 years of election boycott over fraud accusations to join the fray in Thursday’s polls.

The Front For Justice and Development

The party was launched in February by a charismatic Islamist leader, Abdallah Djaballah, who had previously founded both the Ennahda and El Islah parties.

Mr Djaballah’s views are close those of the Muslim Brotherhood but considers himself as part of the opposition.