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North African Islamists are stronger than they look

MICHAEL D. DRIESSEN

Although everyone by now has traced a narrative arc from Tunisia to the momentous events in Egypt, eyes darted first to Algeria. In the days surrounding the collapse of Tunisian President Ben Ali’s government, many wondered about the stability of the government in Algiers. After all, protests had proliferated throughout the last year as black market prices on basic goods inflated, and general apathy about Algerian President Bouteflika turned to anger. Algeria is next to Tunisia and, in fact, some Algerian political opposition forces are currently attempting to rally around the present moment of political openness—a moment fraught with all the more potential because of the unfolding situation in Egypt.

As analysts drew comparisons between Ben Ali and Bouteflika, and Tunisia and Algeria, however, they were quick to focus on the differences: Tunisia is relatively secular, it has a strong relationship with the West, and its Islamist forces are generally moderate and marginalized. Often implicit in this comparison is a claim that democracy might have a chance to emerge from Tunisia’s political crisis because Tunisia has secular opposition forces who could take on the mantle of electoral power and form a government. Many decline to make the same claims about Algeria—thanks to its recent history with more radical versions of Islamism, from the political rhetoric of the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) to the terrorism of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), GSPC (Salafist Group for Call and Combat) and, now, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

There is little question that the political landscape of Tunisia looks quite different from that of Algeria with respect to the place of political Islam.

But I offer two reflections on the political potential of Islamism in Tunisia, Algeria, and North Africa in general that go a long way toward qualifying this simplistic contrast.

Lessons from Algeria

In October of 1988, Western observers were stunned when Islamist politicians became the face of a popular uprising in Algeria that had begun with youth protests. In fact, some pinpoint a hike in university cafeteria prices as the initial trigger. Why were they surprised? Well, because Algeria appeared to be such a left-leaning, secular Arab country—very similar to what is said about Tunisia today.

Tunisian Islamists may not look like much of a force now. In some ways, Islamists are not a dominant political movement. What is more, the staid Rached Ghannouchi, the face of Tunisian Islamism, is no Ali Belhadj or Abassi Madani, the fiery and ambitious duo who led the FIS to electoral triumph in Algeria in the late 1980s.

But the lesson of Algeria is that a political landscape can shift quickly. As far as Tunisian opposition forces go, Islamists remain important. What is more, their proximity to the religious infrastructure in Tunisia gives them access to an enormous mobilizing potential. In some ways, this potential was a critical ingredient in the capacity of the FIS to catapult itself to political prominence in Algeria in 1988.

Consider, also, that the geopolitics of Islamism have changed in important ways over the last twenty years. Most importantly, North African Islamists no longer possess the powerful glean of a pure and untested social movement. While they were banned in Tunisia, Islamist political parties in Algeria have become more moderate, institutionalized and politically weak throughout their last fifteen years of electoral participation.

A (gradual) Islamist comeback in North Africa?

Although this means that North African Islamists may be incapable of generating the same political charge that the FIS did in 1988, they are nowhere near political collapse—in part because Arab governments have not given them the chance to fail. In this respect, even as they have engaged in different political strategies of compromise with the political system, both of Algeria’s principal Islamist parties, MSP-HAMAS and Islah, have learned a lot from their experience with Algerian elections. They have formed parliamentary relationships with other legitimate, non-religious political parties, have coherent political agendas, and continue to nurture a real political base. In a 2009 presidential poll by a popular Arabic newspaper, for example, Abdallah Djaballah, the leading figure of Algeria’s Islah political party, received more online votes than President Bouteflika—or any other national Algerian figure, for that matter.

From a certain angle, and despite their weak popular support, Algerian Islamists are in a better political position now than they were twenty years ago. They are placed to work with other democratic opposition forces and, at least in the interim, form a new and more democratic government to replace Bouteflika. In 1988, many Algerians believed that a multiparty Algerian democracy that included both secular and Islamist parties was impossible and would inevitably lead to civil conflict. Given the experience of Islamist political participation in Algeria, such an inclusive democracy, if still difficult, now seems much less far-fetched and adds credibility to Rached Ghannouchi’s claim that he fully supports multiparty democracy in Tunisia.

It is clear that Islamists have not been central to the “Jasmine Revolutions” that have swept across Tunisia and now Egypt. But we should expect them to play a significant role in their resolution, even in “secular” Tunisia. The great potential for a long-term Islamist presence throughout North Africa makes the political endgame in Egypt and the evolving relationship between youth leaders, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rest of the opposition all the more important to watch.

Michael D. Driessen (www.michaeldriessen.com) is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. A closer examination of the trajectories of Algerian Islamist parties can be found in his forthcoming article, “Public Religion, Democracy and Islam: Examining the Inclusion-Moderation Hypothesis in Algeria,” to be published in the journal Comparative Politics.

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