Algeria's Islamists brace for May polling

April 25, 2012 at 4:24 PM
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ALGIERS, Algeria, April 25 (UPI) -- Algeria is deploying 60,000 security troops across the restive country amid campaigning for May parliamentary elections in which Islamists are running for the first time in two decades.

The North African country's deeply entrenched military-backed regime fears that Islamists, emboldened by an Islamist resurgence in the pro-democracy uprisings that has gripped the region since January 2011, will score heavily to challenge its power.

But, as the Financial Times observes, "In the year of the Arab Spring, social unrest, political revolution and civil war have swept across one country after another in North Africa and the Middle East. But the ancien regime in Algeria remains defiantly in place."

There was rioting and protests early in 2011 in the immediate eruption of the pro-democracy movement in Tunisia.

But the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a veteran of the 1954-62 war of independence against French colonialism, lifted a 19-year state of emergency and doled out hefty financial packages to pacify a disgruntled populace.

For all intents and purposes, the turmoil of the Arab Spring passed Algeria by.

But it was in Algeria that Islamist political power first raised its head in the modern Arab world and, in a way, was the catalyst for the Arab Spring that erupted in Tunisia in January 2011.

In 1992, the Algiers government canceled the second round of voting in parliamentary elections when it became clear that Islamists were going to win. That triggered 10 years of a vicious war between the military-backed government, in which the generals eventually didn't even bother to hide behind civilians, and Islamist militants.

Around 200,000 people were killed. No one's really sure of the death toll. Many were slaughtered in gruesome massacres carried out by both sides, often disguised as their enemies in a bid to discredit them.

Both sides were equally barbaric.

And the collective memory of that barbarism, plus echoes of the atrocities of the war of independence that ended 132 years of French rule so graphically immortalized in Gillo Pontecorvo's 1957 film "The Battle of Algiers," still lingers.

Many Algerians don't want to see such searing history repeated and this could adversely affect the Islamists' hopes of victory at the polls.

The fact that Islamists of various stripes, like the powerful and long-banned Muslim Brotherhood, the godfather of just about every Islamic radical outfit over the last 80 years, have emerged victorious in the first free elections in countries like Egypt and Tunisia in recent months may not resonate in Algeria next month.

And yet, despite the cruel lessons of the Arab Spring, Algeria's rulers, known for the last 20 years as "Le Pouvoir," or 'the Power," have shown no inclination to surrender control.

In contrast to other Arab states, "Algeria's armed forces and security services -- the institutions that wield hard power behind the façade of a civilian presidency -- have neither caved in nor come under much pressure from the international community to do so," Tony Barber wrote in the Financial Times.

The horrible memory of the civil war between Islamists and the "Le Pouvoir" is one reason why the pressure for change has been inhibited, despite economic, social and political inequality.

"Another reason," says Barber, "is that Algeria's authoritarian rulers, backed by extensive oil revenues, have displayed an unremitting determination for 50 years never to loosen their grip.

"A third reason is that the outside world -- especially France, the former colonial master -- has stayed mostly on the sidelines."

The travails of the last two decades have split the Islamist bloc. Internal rivalries for leadership of the movement, reflecting years of internecine feuding, could weaken it come polling day.

That's what "Le Pouvoir" seems to be banking on. Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia recently ruled out the likelihood of Islamists taking power at the ballot box, as they would have in 1992.

"Algeria has its own peculiarities and social values which do not resemble those in other places," he was quoted as saying.

That was interpreted as meaning that in the final analysis "Le Pouvoir" is counting on Algerians voting with their feet to avoid another bloodbath.

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