With international attention focused on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, little notice is taken of Algeria, another major political battleground in the Muslim world. With presidential elections expected next April, however, Algeria is likely to return to the headlines.
In a sense, the campaign started last spring when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika fired Prime Minister Ali Benflis who harbors presidential ambitions of his own. Three political forces have been competing for power in the Muslim world, at times through violent means, since the late 1970s.Algeria is one of the most important of those battlegrounds.
The oldest of the forces could be described as that of inertia, representing the established order that has systematically opposed change and tried to protect the privileges of the ruling elite.
That force assumes different manifestations in different Muslim countries. In Algeria it represents the military, the security services, the bureaucracy, the state-controlled sector of the economy, and the various associations and organizations that get a share of the oil and gas income controlled by the state.
In the last presidential election, Bouteflika stood as the candidate of that establishment. Although his landslide victory at the time was partly fiction, there is no doubt that he was able to attract some support beyond the establishment.
The second of the three forces competing for power represents groups, associations, and parties that use the label “Islamic” and claim to possess the only correct political interpretation of the Koran. In the two direct presidential elections held in Algeria so far, the Islamist movement has had a candidate in only one. In that election the Islamist candidate, Mahfoud Nahnah, a moderate, came in second, collecting almost a quarter of the votes.
The third force present on the Muslim political scene represents the various democratic, liberal, and reformist parties and associations backed by the middle classes and parts of the urban working class. These forces fielded two candidates in the first Algerian presidential election and collected around 12 percent of the votes.
Provided the three forces commit themselves to genuine elections as the only means of attaining political power, their competition could revitalize Muslim political life that has been atrophied by decades of despotism and violence.
The problem with the two presidential elections held in Algeria so far is that credible candidates represented none of the three forces mentioned above.
In the first election, Limaine Zeroual, a retired general who had served as interim head of state, won more than two-thirds of he votes by standing above all three forces. That was good electoral tactic at the time.
The result was that the Algerian voter was not given a clear choice. In the second election, Bouteflika won as the sole candidate, largely because all other candidates had withdrawn from the race on the eve of polling day. Again, the voter was denied a choice.
Will next April’s election offer Algerians a real choice?
It is too early to tell. Powerful clans within the establishment are already busy plotting a scripted election with the cast of characters they want. Under that script, Bouteflika will enter the race as “the candidate of consensus” while the Islamists and the democrats will be represented either by candidates who are unable to widen their audience, or by too many candidates who will divide their respective camps.
The element of uncertainty in all this is the decision by Ali Benhaj, the charismatic leader of the banned Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS), to become a candidate in next April’s presidential election. Benhaj, recently released from prison after serving a 12-year sentence for inciting the army to rebellion, has not yet revealed his real intentions.
By refusing to compromise himself in exchange for an early release, Benhaj has established himself as the unquestioned hero of the most radical elements of the banned FIS. In 1990 Benhaj said in an interview that Islam was incompatible with democracy based on elections. He agreed that Islamists should use elections to win power but that, once in power, they should not accept elections that may force them out. His slogan at the time was “One Man, One Vote, Once!”
It is, of course, possible that Benhaj has changed his views. In any case, there is no doubt that he would make a strong and attractive candidate, thus contributing to the enrichment of the political debate in Algeria. The Algerian establishment would make a grave mistake if it uses dirty tricks to prevent Benhaj from standing.
The Algerian Islamist movement has several other attractive candidates who might wish to offer an alternative to Benhaj. Abdallah Jaballah, the principal leader of the opposition in the parliament, could be as charismatic as Behnaj while his commitment to democracy and his rejection of violence seem more sincere. The older Islamist leader, Mahfoud Nahnah may be a shadow of himself today, but is still capable of appealing to voters beyond the Islamist constituency.
The democratic, liberal camp is likely to be divided once again, thus reducing its chances of victory. Veteran human rights leader, Said Sadi, is almost certain to stand. But will he be able to mobilize support beyond his native Kabyle region and the capital Algiers?
The democratic and liberal camp would have a strong chance if it were to unite behind a single candidate capable of taking votes from both the establishment and the pro-Islamist constituencies. Such a candidate could be Benflis, the former prime minister.
A longtime campaigner for human rights, Benflis now leads the Front for National Liberation (FLN) which ruled the country in a one-party system for 30 years. Much of Algeria’s recent tragedy is due to the ruinous policies of the FLN. But the former ruling party appears to have changed in the same way that the Communist parties of eastern and central Europe changed before regaining power through elections.
If backed only by the FLN, Benflis will have no chance. The establishment will throw its weight behind Bouteflika while Islamists and democrats, who suffered for years under the FLN, would have little incentive to back Benflis.
The ideal would be a three-horse race: Bouteflika representing the establishment, Benhaj bearing the standard for the Islamists, and Benflis standing for democrats, liberals, and reformers in the context of a carefully negotiated and properly spelled-out common program. Thus the next election could offer the Algerian voter a real choice while showing that only in democracy can the three forces of Islamic politics co-exist and compete without violence, terror, and tyranny.
— Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. Taheri is a NRO contributor. He’s available through www.benadorassociates.com.