Table of Contents


“He who boycotts the December 2019 election is a disbeliever and enemy of the nation and the people,” proclaimed the Algerian National Syndicate of Zawaya on Facebook.1 The fatwa, or legal opinion on a point of Islamic law, issued in the run-up to the presidential contest sparked widespread online uproar in an election cycle already marred by protests and shunned by most Algerians. This was not the first time that some Sufi zawaya (singular zawiya, or religious schools, lodges, or orders that play an important social role in their surrounding communities) stirred up indignation and controversy. In 2016, disgraced former minister of energy and mines Chakib Khelil, who left Algeria in 2013 embroiled in a corruption scandal that led to an international arrest warrant being issued against him, kicked off his return to the country with a highly controversial tour of several zawaya in different parts of Algeria.2 But not all Sufi orders or their followers are aligned with unpopular political causes or tarnished politicians. The Khelil case, in particular, was met with deep consternation even among zawaya that view bargains with men of power transactionally.

The reality is that Sufi orders are not monolithic in their viewpoints, interests, and agendas. Throughout Algerian history, some Sufi orders have resisted political co-option while others have struck Faustian bargains with the powers that be. Zawaya’s societal reach and influence in politics also vary and tend to ebb and flow according to historical events, situational constraints, and political opportunity structures. This analysis illustrates how the structural environment determines the weight and political visibility of Sufi leaders and Sufi orders. It also shows how context-dependent constraints, incentives, and pressures shape Sufi preferences and define their engagement in politics. In so doing, it highlights how the roles, interests, and significance of Sufi orders in Algerian politics are intricately intertwined with the interests, policies, and motivations of the regime in both the national and international arenas.

The roles, interests, and significance of Sufi orders in Algerian politics are intricately intertwined with the interests, policies, and motivations of the regime in both the national and international arenas.

Sufism in the Colonial Era

For ages, Sufi orders and temporal political powers in Algeria have been in constant interaction, interwoven with periods of integration, connivance, and conflict. The kinds of interactions that arose depended on the circumstances. In times of crisis, Sufi orders tended to come to prominence, either as grand legitimators of the status quo or challengers to authority that they perceived as undermining their distinctiveness or credibility among their adherents. As pillars of power, they were responsible for integrating and regulating differing interests in society. During the reign of the Zayyanid dynasty (from 1235 to 1556), they were recognized as special actors who helped structure relations between political authority and local populations.3 The Ottoman Empire also employed their ability to mediate and organize social and political interactions during the empire’s 300 years of presence in Algeria.

Anouar Boukhars
Boukhars was a nonresident fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is a professor of countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University.
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The onset of French colonialism after 1830 ignited insurgent consciousness in some Sufi orders who feared political and social obsolescence by a new colonial regime that exhibited deep suspicion and distrust toward what it considered occult and subversive political-religious organizations. This sense of danger was a driving force behind some orders’ transformation into the main locus of resistance to the French conquest of Algeria.

In many ways, Sufi orders were the best equipped of any social group to take on this insurgent role given that they were the only ones with enough organizing capacity, resources, and deep social connections.4 It came as no surprise, then, that for the better part of the nineteenth century, the so-called prophets of military resistance all belonged to Sufi brotherhoods. Emir Abd el-Kader (who lived from 1808 to 1883) of the Qadiriyya Brotherhood, who led the war of liberation at the age of twenty-five, embodied the preeminent political-military role that some zawaya came to play.5 During the 1830s, he exerted control over large swaths of territory in central and western Algeria thanks to both military victories and skilled negotiation with the French. At the same time, he managed to organize and build the essential trappings of a functioning state and army. Abd el-Kader’s experiment of statehood came to an end with his defeat by the French in 1847.

The insurgent mantle was taken on by other Sufi brotherhoods such as the Ouled Sidi Cheikh, which in 1864 directed its military struggle toward subverting the French presence in the south of the port city Oran.6 The most notable act of revolt, however, transpired in eastern Algeria and was led by Mohamed Al Hadj al-Mokrani (who lived from 1815 to 1871), the leader of the Kabyle revolt of 1871–1872.7 He did not initially oppose French colonization, but that changed when his local power and administrative prerogatives were curtailed. After the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), al-Mokrani saw an opportunity to challenge the colonial dominance in his region. In March 1871, he assembled a war council and sought to rally the support of local chiefs, notables, and religious figures.

The endorsement of Cheikh al-Haddad (who lived from 1790 to 1873) of the Rahmaniyya Sufi brotherhood was key to al-Mokrani’s war efforts, leading several Kabyle tribes to join his revolt. Al-Mokrani amassed significant manpower (150,000 warriors), allowing his insurrection to sweep eastern Algeria and extend to different regions of the country. His revolt, however, largely dissipated after he was killed in battle on May 5, 1871.8 The 1870s saw other insurrections erupt in the mountainous area of the Aurès range in eastern Algeria and at the gates of the Sahara Desert, but they failed to garner the tribal support and buy-in of the influential Sufi orders that had fueled al-Mokrani and el-Kader’s rebellions.

Each individual zawiya had its particular position and strategy for dealing with colonial machinations.

By the 1880s, however, the Sufi-led revolts against French rule had lost momentum and petered out. The French managed to consolidate their power and neutralize the resistance that emanated mostly from recalcitrant Sufi orders. The colonial administration had honed its divide-and-rule tactics and policies, thanks in part to the development of a more fine-grained understanding of how zawaya functioned, including their distinctions and internal dissensions.9 Each individual zawiya had its particular position and strategy for dealing with colonial machinations. Some had quickly adapted to colonial rule, preferring collaboration, even if on unequal terms, to hedge against French abuse and arbitrary expropriation of their land. This pursuit of self-interest and expediency created rifts between and within zawaya. There were some instances in which Sufi orders were internally divided between those who fiercely resisted co-option and those who facilitated colonial penetration. Even within major orders like the Tidjaniyya, which was considered more amenable to accommodation and collaboration with the French than the Rahmaniyya or the Qadiriyya were, there were some adherents that refused to facilitate French incursion into the south of Algeria.10

In the end, the French strategies of repression and divide and rule ended up vexing, co-opting, and exhausting Sufi orders. By the end of the nineteenth century, zawaya had come to terms with colonial domination, even if most of them continued to resist France’s aggressive attempts to supplant Algeria’s cultural identity.11

The early twentieth century brought a different kind of intellectual, cultural, and religious challenge to the zawaya. The reformist Salafiyya intellectual movement—whose prominent spokesmen, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (who lived from 1838 to 1897), Muhammad Abduh (who lived from 1849 to 1905), and Rashid Rida (who lived from 1865 to 1935), militated for religious revival and reform—began to take root in Algeria. The movement exhibited hostility to the doctrines and practices of Sufi orders. Between the two world wars, Sheikh ‘Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis (who lived from 1889 to 1940) became the leader of the Islamic Reform Movement in Algeria. Initially, he was open to collaboration with Sufi orders as long as they pursued a program of moral and religious renewal. To run this renewal, the Ulama Association was created in 1931, with Ben Badis as its head. Soon after, however, this cooperative relationship soured as differences over strategies and agendas became irreconcilable. Toward the end of the colonial era, the Islam of the reformers had supplanted that of the Sufi orders as the main determinant of Algerian national consciousness.12

The emergence of the movement for independence during World War I (lasting from 1914 to 1918) posed another major challenge to the zawaya. As the struggle for liberation intensified, the zawaya came under immense pressure by both the liberation movement, which demanded support for the Algerian War of Independence (lasting from 1954 to 1962), and French colonial rulers, who sought their collaboration in blunting the momentum for independence. An appreciable number of zawaya, however, adopted a neutral position, limiting their role to the realms of education and religion. This proved highly unpopular, instigating the wrath of the liberation movement and discrediting Sufi orders.13

Trials and Tribulations of Sufi Orders

The Algerian liberation movement was robust but by no means a unified resistance movement. Yet, groups that were reticent or did not adhere to the movement found themselves on the wrong side of history and paid a steep price once independence was achieved in 1962. In the first two decades after the end of 132 years of colonial French rule in Algeria, the Algerian government marginalized zawaya and imposed severe restrictions on their activities.14 To be sure, the new rulers of independent Algeria were wary of all religious actors and were intent on controlling a religious field whose societal role could be conducive to resisting central power. Under the brief reign of Algeria’s first prime minister and later first president Ahmed Ben Bella (who ruled from 1962 to 1965), the government’s strategy was to manage religious conservatives, co-opt their cultural agenda, and tighten control over the apparatus of worship and education.15 The goal was to make the zawaya irrelevant.

What the French feared as potential insurgents Boumédiène considered as spies.

When Houari Boumédiène became president of Algeria in June 1965 following a coup d’etat, his regime pursued the co-option strategy of his predecessor, amplifying the reformist religious agenda of the heirs of Ben Badis while aggressively combating recalcitrant religious voices. Boumédiène became even more intolerant of Sufi orders, whom he equated with superstition, obscurantism, and perfidy.16 Major zawaya like the Tidjaniyya and the Alawiyya bore the brunt of his administration’s religious policies, which confiscated their lands, excluded them from all religious programs, and prohibited their leaders from leaving the national territory. The Algerian government, for example, harassed Sheikh Mehdi Bentounes (who lived from 1928 to 1975) of the Alawiyya order, whom the authorities suspected of disloyalty. Similar to the French preoccupation with the zawiya’s transnational networks of Sufi adherents, the Algerian authorities were suspicious of the number of international visitors to this Sufi order. What the French feared as potential insurgents Boumédiène considered as spies. As such, Bentounes was viewed with intense scrutiny and suspicion. On February 18, 1970, he was arrested after a months-long investigation and a vehement media campaign that accused him of conspiracy with foreign forces. Even after his release on November 10, 1970, he remained for several years under the close watch of the authorities.17

The death of Boumédiène in 1978 brought the zawaya respite from years of state-led ostracism and marginalization. His successor, Chadli Bendjedid, displayed tolerance to Sufi orders thanks in part to the president’s own purported spiritual affinity to Sufism; his association with Zawiya Sheikh Belahoual in Mostaganem, which he frequented; and his own wife’s kinship ties to the zawiya of the Bourokba in Mazouna.18

There were also political and strategic reasons for relieving the siege on the zawaya. The late 1970s saw the emergence of political Islam as a formidable opposition force, as exemplified by the dramatic events that shook the greater Middle East in 1979, namely the Iranian Revolution, the siege of the Grand Mosque at Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan that provoked an Islamist rebellion supported by widespread Islamic international solidarity. During this time, Algeria began to witness the resurgence of the politicization of religious conservatism as well as cultural, linguistic, and ethnic identities that had been repressed during the first decades of independence as Ben Bella and Boumédiène strove to construct a unitary and unified state.

This context facilitated the gradual rehabilitation of Sufi orders. In office, Bendjedid publicly visited the Zawiya Belkadia in Tlemcen and Sidi Mohamed Belkebir’s zawiya in Adrar in the Sahara Desert.19 In 1984, he authorized a large international conference devoted to the Tidjaniyya order, which boasted millions of followers in West Africa alone. The goal of the gathering was to revitalize the Tidjaniyya zawiya as an instrument of Algerian foreign policy, particularly against its neighboring rival, Morocco. Indeed, the idea behind the event was to amass support in West Africa for Polisario Front guerrillas who were fighting Morocco over control of the Western Sahara. Morocco—which quit the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) in 1984 over its admission of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1982—had secured the support of the most important African Tidjani leaders for its sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Bendjedid also contributed to financing one of the largest Quranic schools that was affiliated with the Niassene branch of Tidjaniyya in Senegal and that, at the time, served hundreds of students, mainly from Ghana, Niger, and Nigeria.20

The evidence of a state-led push for a revival of zawaya became notable as public confidence in government plunged and the political and security threats emanating from Islamist groups became more pronounced.

The evidence of a state-led push for a revival of zawaya became notable as public confidence in government plunged and the political and security threats emanating from Islamist groups became more pronounced. Indeed, exactly one year after the Algerian Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), swept provincial and municipal elections in June 1990, the Algerian government sponsored a national conference that brought together nearly 300 Sufi sheikhs.21 This was the clearest demonstration yet of the gradual rehabilitation of Sufi orders.

Historically, at times of crisis, Sufi orders rose to the occasion to resist colonial rule and safeguard and valorize Algerians’ cultural and religious identity. So, Bendjedid banked on the revival of Sufi orders to serve as counterweights to revolutionary Islamism. Sufi orders also hoped to seize the moment, creating in the process the National Union of Algerian Zawaya and vowing to “fight all those who, in the name of Wahhabism and Shiism and all other imported rites, have tried to introduce deviations in the Maliki rite, the common denominator of the majority of our people.”22

The subsequent electoral triumph of the FIS in the first round of parliamentary elections on December 26, 1991, dashed Bendjedid’s hopes, leading to his forced resignation and a military takeover. The coup triggered a devastating decade-long civil war where Islamist insurgents targeted Sufi orders, forcing their adherents to keep a low profile. But even under siege, Sufi orders did not fade away into irrelevance.23 The military regime needed to shore up its authority and weaken and delegitimize the insurgents. In 1997, the general Liamine Zéroual, who had been elected president in November 1995, appointed Sheikh Bouabdallah Ghlamallah of the Zawiya Chaldoulia of Sidi ‘Adda in Tiaret as the minister of religious affairs.24 This was the first time since Algeria’s independence that such a strategic ministry was entrusted to someone not steeped in the reformist tradition of Ben Badis’s Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama. The move marked yet another signal in the government’s determination to elevate the status of Sufi orders.

The Renaissance of Sufism

Sufi orders’ path back to rehabilitation blossomed into prominence under the reign of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (who ruled from 1999 to 2019). Unlike his mentor, Boumédiène, who combated Sufi orders, Bouteflika had a personal affinity to Sufism.25 His father worked in a zawiya and his family had always been connected to this kind of Islam. When he was sidelined by the military after the death of Boumédiène in 1978, he reportedly frequented a number of zawaya like those in Adrar in the Algerian desert. Strategically, Bouteflika embraced Sufi orders for their potential mobilizing effects in their roles as purveyors of Algerian religious authenticity; mitigators of societal conflict; galvanizers of votes, especially in rural areas; and force-multipliers for Algeria’s diplomatic influence internationally.26

To cultivate his relationship with Sufi orders, Bouteflika poured state money into shoring up popular mausoleums, refurbishing shrines and tombs of Sufi saints, and propping up Sufi schools and educational centers. His allies in the business community helped bankroll some of these financial initiatives to revive Sufi networks and in the process advance the former president’s political objectives. Notable politicians such as former prime minister and current President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, former minister of foreign affairs Abdelaziz Belkhadem, and other senior military officers enthusiastically and publicly jumped on Bouteflika’s Sufi bandwagon.27 This significant turnaround in the fortunes of Sufi orders was captured best in 2003 by Omar Mahmoud Chaalal, who helped found in June of that year the National Union of Algerian Zawaya. “Now that our zawaya have recovered their ancestral religious and spiritual legitimacy,” he said, the union can “finally call on those self-proclaimed modernists and those who wrongly call themselves reformists [Salafists] to rectify their approach” and acknowledge “the harmonious and ancestral tandem relationship between Zawiya and Algerian society.”28

To cultivate his relationship with Sufi orders, Bouteflika poured state money into shoring up popular mausoleums, refurbishing shrines and tombs of Sufi saints, and propping up Sufi schools and educational centers.

Bouteflika’s push to elevate the status of Sufi orders and acquaint the public with their positive social and cultural history became more pronounced with the mushrooming of Sufi cultural events and seasonal festivals. The Ministry of Culture sponsored dozens of international cultural events that brought together Sufi actors and notable Algerian and foreign experts in Sufism.29 The goal, according to culture minister Khalida Toumi (who held office from 2002 to 2014), was to revive Algerians’ historical memory and the values of their ancestors, both critical components to safeguard the public against the “external dangers of religious extremism.”30 For anthropologist Zaim Khenchelaoui, who played an important role in the organization of such events, the Algerian public had to be reintroduced to Sufism as “the bearer of a theology of liberation.”31

After 2014, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Waqf assumed a more prominent role in the promotion of Sufism. Under the tenure of Mohamed Aïssa (who was minister from 2014 to 2019), the ministry accelerated its support of cultural meetings and commemorations that encouraged a “return to [Sufi] ancestral Islam.”32 During a national meeting on the Rahmaniyya brotherhood organized by local zawaya and held in Tizi Ouzou in 2015, Aïssa extolled Sufism as an “Islam of tolerance and peace” and the “only remedy for religious extremism,” urging the faithful to favor Sufism and the Rahmaniyya brotherhood in particular which, he specified, “played an important role in the fight against French colonialism.”33 In 2016, he sponsored the organization of an international Sufism conference in Mostaganem whose goal was the creation of a world body of Sufism “to strengthen it in the fight against radical Islam.”34 He also founded an observatory against sectarian aberrations and religious extremism.

Aïssa also intensified efforts to rectify the distorted historical record that denigrated the role that zawaya played in fighting colonialism. Several conferences were organized to brandish the historical contributions of Sufism to thwarting the colonial machinations that undermined national identity. Speaking at the opening of an international seminar in Ouargla Province in 2019 on “Sufism and its role in the preservation of religious references and national identity,” the minister praised the patriotism of Sufi orders and their critical role in the preservation of national identity. He also applauded the “African dimension of the Sufi brotherhoods in Algeria and their role in spreading Islam in Africa.”35

Unlike Toumi, wrote Thierry Zarcone, Aïssa’s actions were “more political than cultural.”36 Aïssa worked to prop up the role of the Union of Zawaya, which was an ardent supporter of Bouteflika. The latter understood early in his tenure that courting Sufi orders could help him consolidate his electoral base as well as counter accusations “that he was too lenient towards Islamists.”37 In presidential elections often marked by low turnout, influential Sufi sheikhs had the potential to shore up support for the president from their constituencies, especially in the non-metropolitan hinterland of Algeria where Sufi adherents still represent a non-negligible electoral mass. Indeed, Sufi orders ardently supported Bouteflika’s presidential campaigns and promoted his major national reconciliation initiatives and general amnesty for militant Islamists who agreed to lay down their weapons. Chaalal, the president of the National Union of Algerian Zawaya, gave Sufi orders the credit for facilitating the government’s conflict mitigation activities and reconciliation processes. Chaalal also claimed credit for Bouteflika’s electoral successes.38

Sufism as a Foreign Policy Resource

Bouteflika re-activated Sufi orders for external reasons, as well. A few notable studies have already demonstrated how his regime has incorporated the Algerian branch of the Tidjaniyya order into Algeria’s foreign policy conduct in the Sahel and West Africa.39 Bouteflika saw in this Sufi order a means to upgrade Algeria’s soft sources of power and contest Morocco’s decades-long dominance of the transnational networks of Tidjaniyya. Under his reign, efforts were made to challenge the dominance of the ancient Moroccan city of Fes—which houses the tomb of the founder of the Tidjaniyya order—through transforming Aïn Mâdî (the birthplace of the founder of Tidjaniyya) in the Algerian desert into a major learning center and pilgrimage site for the followers of Tidjaniyya in West Africa and beyond. In 2006, exactly twenty-two years after Bendjedid organized an international conference about the Tidjaniyya, Bouteflika reinvigorated the African significance of Aïn Mâdî through the organization of an important gathering of intellectuals, notable personalities, and disciples of Tidjaniyya from Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan. The Bouteflika regime also tried to expand its Tidjaniyya network into the West African diaspora of France.40

Bouteflika saw in this Sufi order a means to upgrade Algeria’s soft sources of power.

Less studied, however, is how Bouteflika came to rely on the Alawiyya Sufi order to bolster Algeria’s influence on the international stage as an exporter of a tolerant and modernist version of Islam.41 Like Tidjaniyya, Alawiyya boasts a significant following outside of Algeria. The school is well established in the Algerian diasporas of Europe and enjoys a reputation for promoting “interreligious dialogue, gender equality, environmental protection and peace.”42 Its spiritual leader, Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, is “the initiator of the International Day of Living Together in Peace, unanimously adopted by the 193 member states of the United Nations, celebrated every year on May 16.”43

In 2005, Alawiyya came to be tightly interwoven with the Algerian regime’s diplomatic calculus. The impressive celebration that the order organized in November in Mostaganem in northwest Algeria to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Mehdi Bentounes was notable for the high-profile attendees. The presence of the wali (prefect) of Mostaganem and the minister of religious affairs Bouabdallah Ghlamallah—who likened Mehdi’s travails and trajectory to that of the great revolutionaries Ben Bella and key independence organizer Abane Ramdane—was a strong indication of the full official rehabilitation of the Alawiyya Sufi order.44

The 2009 centennial commemoration of the founding of the Alawiyya was another occasion to showcase the growing visibility and influence of the Alawiyya order. Before the event officially began in July, the Association Cheikh Alawi embarked on an itinerant project entitled “Caravan of Hope” that crisscrossed several towns of Algeria and organized several cultural, artistic, and spiritual activities.45 In parallel to the Caravan of Hope, the Muslim Scouts of France that Khaled Bentounes founded in 1990 made their way throughout Algiers, Paris, Rome, Tripoli, and Tunis. This was part of their project, called “Flame of Hope,” that was intended to connect scout movements on the two shores of the Mediterranean as well as garner the support of state representatives. In Europe, the authorities have welcomed the order’s emphasis on the construction of a European Islam and its efforts to inculcate a nonideological, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian teaching of religion to the thousands of girls and boys in Europe who are part of the Muslim Scouts movement. This was evidenced when the Flame of Hope that made the rounds from Paris to Berlin was “welcomed by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany.”46

In Algeria, Khaled Bentounes also saw his status elevated, as demonstrated in the July centennial celebrations in Mostaganem, which mobilized six thousand people, including two thousand foreign participants from Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, several countries in Europe, Indonesia, Japan, Morocco, and Palestine. In the first two decades after Algeria’s independence, the transnational and dynamic nature of the Alawiyya order unnerved the authorities, who feared the political implications of the order’s mobilization capacity. As seen earlier, Boumédiène distrusted the order, suspecting it of acting as a likely vector for foreign spying. So, it did not go unnoticed that such an international gathering was allowed to take place, and most importantly, it was held under the high patronage of Bouteflika, who according to Khaled Bentounes, insisted that the centenary be celebrated in Algeria, and precisely in Mostaganem, the birthplace of the founder of Alawiyya.47

Importantly, the president’s sponsorship of the event came on the heels of a heated controversy over Khaled Bentounes’s book, Sufism, A Common Inheritance.48 The book’s content, and especially its cover, which features a picture of the Prophet Muhammad, infuriated Islamists, Salafists, and even some Sufi orders, who called for the book to be banned and the president to withdraw his patronage of the event.49 Reportedly, Bouteflika intervened to put an end to the firestorm over the book and the order’s centennial festivities by summoning Sheikh Bouamrane of the High Islamic Council and Sheikh Chibane, head of the Association of Algerian Muslim Scholars and former minister of religious affairs, and instructing them to cease their virulent attacks on Bentounes. The fact that Bouteflika, who also sought to accommodate and co-opt socially conservative forces, stood by Bentounes spoke volumes about the importance he accorded to this Sufi order.

In 2014, it was again under the patronage of Bouteflika that the L’Association Internationale Soufie Alawiyya (AISA) organized the International Women’s Congress for a Culture of Peace in Oran. During that same year, AISA became an officially accredited partner of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council. In 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization organized a special conference to pay tribute to the Alawi Sufi order, “a school for tolerance and interreligious social interaction.”50 In the meeting, Aïssa portrayed Alawi “as a humanist reformer whose prospective vision continues to arouse the interest of new generations and is a valuable contribution to meeting our common challenge: to restore confidence in Islam in the face of religious extremism.”51

Losing Ground

Bouteflika’s strategy toward Sufi orders was designed to be a win-win situation.52 The most influential Sufi orders had been buoyed by the amenable environment that Bouteflika created for their spiritual, social, and financial development. Under his reign, Sufi orders enjoyed more freedom to operate and gained appreciable political influence to advance their priorities and their policy agenda. The zawaya, for example, acquired for their students the right of access to higher education, which facilitated their entry into the civil service as imams of mosques.53 For a zawiya such as that of Adrar in Algeria’s south, where the number of students trained is estimated at 1,000 students per year, such a strategic alliance with the state not only secured jobs for its school graduates but provided a critical avenue for the school to extend its social influence and exercise indirect powers from within state-controlled institutions.

Under Bouteflika’s reign, Sufi orders enjoyed more freedom to operate and gained appreciable political influence to advance their priorities and their policy agenda.

For the Bouteflika regime, the appointment of Sufi imams in state institutions helped advance its goal of institutionalizing the function and training of imams as well as limiting the presence of Salafist preachers in places of worship. The proliferation of Sufi welfare associations also served state interests as they help to “fill vacuums in the state’s provision of welfare and educational services” as well as reduce the advantage that Islamist social welfare institutions had in expanding their base.54

This close-knit relationship between Sufism and politics, however, carries risks for the credibility and reputation of Sufi orders. In the scramble for access to the regimes’ patronage networks and distribution schemes, Sufi orders compete with each other over the pie of patronage. Indeed, the regime’s privileging of one order over another created resentment between Sufi orders, prompting some to organize collectively to contest the influence that Bouteflika’s favored Sufi orders and associations, such as the National Union of Zawaya, enjoyed. Some Sufi orders took advantage of Algeria’s competing power centers and clientelist networks to advance their own interests.

Playing the political game can also end up discrediting the orders, particularly those who unabashedly pursue the privileges that accrue from developing cozy—and at times corrupting—relations with ministers, politicians, and businessmen.55 There are a number of cases where Sufi sheikhs lobbied for appointments into positions as senators, High Islamic Council members, and other lucrative state positions. Some, like Kaddour Gouaïche, president of an association of zawaya who was appointed as counselor to Bouteflika, even became entangled in corruption cases. Some zawaya also served as convenient platforms to whitewash politicians, such as Khelil, who were tainted by corruption allegations.56

Toward the end of Bouteflika’s era, there was a noticeable disconnect between Algeria’s increasingly young and urban population and the zawaya, especially those close to the regime.57 The zawaya’s decline in influence could also be seen in Algeria’s peripheral regions, where they are nonetheless still well-established. In 2013, for example, the regime enlisted influential Sufi sheikhs in southern Algeria to help de-escalate tensions stemming from protests against worsening unemployment in that vast region. In 2018, state energy firm Sonatrach began “courting Sunni Muslim Sufi masters from communities in areas near prospective southern gas fields to win over locals worried about possible disruption from exploration work.”58 In both cases, Sufi orders had little impact on reducing street tensions or resistance to shale exploration. The support of several Sufi orders was also not enough when Bouteflika sought a fifth term in office despite the fact that he was paralyzed after having suffered a stroke in 2013.


Sufi orders still have influence in Algerian politics, but the challenges to their moral credibility are mounting and will only deepen. Under Bouteflika, an appreciable number of zawaya have seen their footprint expand in the political and cultural square. Influential Sufi sheikhs found in the former president a reliable partner in advancing their spiritual activities, social agendas, and economic activities. But their braided political relationships and alignments, at times with unpopular causes, have alienated an increasingly young and urban population. They have also caused angst within some Sufi orders whose adherents found it troubling that their zawaya strayed from their religious vocation and charitable and social functions. To be fair, some Sufi sheikhs have resisted placing their zawaya at the service of politicians. Thus, in 2016, for example, the zawiya of Sidi Bahloul refused, amid mounting citizen pressure, a visit from Khelil, the former minister involved in the corruption scandal.59 Citizen mobilization also disrupted Khelil’s tour of zawaya in Chlef and Annaba.60 In 2019, some zawaya resisted supporting an ailing and nearly incapacitated Bouteflika to run for a fifth term.

The onset of the pro-democracy movement known as the Hirak, which led to Bouteflika’s fall, was a warning to Sufi orders that too close of an association with politicians and unpopular causes was self-defeating.

The onset of the pro-democracy movement known as the Hirak, which led to Bouteflika’s fall, was a warning to Sufi orders that too close of an association with politicians and unpopular causes was self-defeating. The challenge for zawaya today is how to balance their religious, cultural, and social activities with political engagement. In many ways, zawaya are faced with the same dilemma that other religious and social actors confront. In an authoritarian context where the material incentives for promoting top-down regime policies is significant and the risks for resisting the state is high, several Sufi orders feel they have no choice but to toe the line to advance their priorities and agendas.

The 2019 presidential election showed how difficult it is to withdraw from political controversies or resist being co-opted by political agendas. For the first time in the history of Algerian elections, four out of the five candidates contesting the presidency decided to launch their electoral campaign from the south of the country in Adrar, which houses the influential Zawiya of Sheikh Belkhebir. The candidates attributed this choice of location to the importance and influence of zawaya in Algeria’s Sahara. Tebboune, who won the contested and unpopular election, has also enlisted supportive zawaya to back his political initiatives while continuing his predecessor’s selective financial support for Sufism.61 Tebboune’s gestures of selective patronage will likely continue to constitute part of the regime’s strategy to hobble the persistent protest movement and prevent the emergence of credible social forces that can threaten its hold on power.

Correction: This piece has been amended to correct the date of Boumédiène’s coup to June 19, 1965 (not July).


The author would like to thank Andrew Lebovich, Intissar Fakir, and Dalia Ghanem for their feedback on this paper.

About the Author

Anouar Boukhars is a nonresident fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program and a professor of countering violent extremism and counterterrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University. He is also an associate professor of international relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.


1 Nassim B., “Someone Who Denies the Elections Is a Disbeliever, According to Algerian Zawaya” (French), Dzair Daily, November 12, 2019,

2 “The Brotherhoods at the Center of Political Solicitations” (French), El Watan, June 3, 2018,

3 “The Zawaya and the Legislators” (French), El Watan, April 29, 2012,

4 Aboul Kassem Saadallah, The Rise of Algerian Nationalism (French) (Algiers: Enterprise nationale du livre, 1983), 27–41.

5 Ahmed Bouyerdene, Abd el-Kader: The Harmony of Opposites (Paris: Seuil, 2008).

6 Annie Rey-Goldzeiguer, The Royal Arab: The Algerian Politics of Napolean III, 1861–1870 (French) (Alger, Société nationale d’édition et de diffusion, 1977).

7 Foad Khatir, “The Changing of Algerian Politics Regarding Sufi Brotherhoods: From Persecution to Rehabilitation, the Case of the Alawiyya Brotherhood, 1909–2009” (French) (doctoral thesis), Université Toulouse le Mirail - Toulouse II, 2016,

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Xavier Coppolani et Octave Depont (eds.), Sufi Brotherhoods (French) (Paris: Hachette Livre–BNF, 2019, first published in 1897).

11 Fanny Colonna, The Verses of Invincibility: Religious Permanence and Change in Contemporary Algeria (French) (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1995).

12 Charlotte Courreye, The Algeria of the Ulema: A History of Contemporary Algeria (1931–1991) (French) (Paris, Editions de la Sorbonne, 2020); and Hugh Roberts, “Radical Islamism and the Dilemma of Algerian Nationalism: The Embattled Arians of Algiers,” Third World Quarterly 10, no. 2 (April 1988): 556–589,

13 See Mahfoud Kaddache, History of Algerian Nationalism: National Question and Algerian Politics, 1919–1951 (French) (Algiers: Société nationale d'édition et de diffusion, 1981); and James McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

14 Ali Merad, Muslim Reform in Algeria From 1925 to 1940: Essay on Religious and Social History (French) (Paris: Mouton, 1967).

15 Franck Fregosi, “Islam and the Algerian State: From Gallicanism to State Fundamentalism” (French), Revue du monde musulman et de la Méditerranée 65, 1992, 61–76; Ernest Geller and Jean Claude Vatin (eds.), Islam and Politics in the Maghreb (French) (Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1981), 253–257; and Mohammed Harbi, The FLN: Mirage and Reality (French) (Paris: Éditions J.A., 1980).

16 Michael Willis, The Islamists Challenge in Algeria: A Political History (New York: New York University Press, 1999); and Khalfa Mameri, Citations From the President Boumediene (French) (Algiers: Société Nationale d’Edition et de Diffusion, 1975).

17 Khatir, “The Changing of Algerian Politics Regarding Sufi Brotherhoods: From Persecution to Rehabilitation, The Case of the Alawiyya Brotherhood, 1909–2009.”

18 Sossie Andezian, “Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia” in Alexandre Popovic and Gilles Veinstein, The Voices of God: Mystic Orders in the Muslim World From the Origins to Today (French) (Paris: Fayard, 1996); and Mohamed Benchicou, Bouteflika: An Algerian Imposter (French) (Algeris: Picollec, 2004).

19 “Why the Power Relies on Zawaya” (French), El Watan, June 3, 2018,

20 Bakary Sambe, “Morocco South of the Sahara: A Strategy of Influence Proving Geopolitical Mutations” (French) in Mansouria Mokhefti and Alain Antil, Morocco and Its South: Toward Renewed Relations (French) (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2019), 173–191,

21 Sossie Andezian, Experiences of the Divine in Contemporary Algeria: Adepts of the Saints in Tlemcen Region (French) (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2001), 237.

22 Baya Gacemi, “Networks in Algeria” (French), El Watan, December 13, 2009,

23 Sossie Andezian, “Faces of Algerian Mysticism” (French) in Naaman Kessous, Christine Margerrison, Andy Stafford, and Guy Dugas, Algeria: Toward the Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence in Algeria (French) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2009), 201, 261.

24 Achour Cheurfi, Biographical Dictionary: The Algerian Political Class From 1900 to Today (French) (Algiers: Casbah Editions, 2006), 38.

25 Benchicou, Bouteflika: An Algerian Imposter, 156–159.

26 See Ghania Oukazi, “Sufism and Political Islam” (French), Quotidien d’Oran, August 12, 2009,; and Rachid Grim, “The Political Game of Zawaya” (French), El Watan, July 12,2004,

27 “The Brotherhoods at the Center of Political Solicitations” (French), El Watan, June 3, 2018,

28 Dr. Mahmoud Chaallal, “Algerian Zawaya: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” (French), Boullion de culture (blog),

29 Thierry Zarcone, “A Rampart Against Salafism? The Political Usage of Sufism by Algerian Elites” (French), Sciences Po, April 2018,

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Dalia Ghanem, “State-Owned Islam in Algeria Faces Stiff Competition,” Carnegie Middle East Center, March 13, 2018,

33 “Mohamed Aïssa at Tizi Ouzou: ‘Authentic Islam Rejects Religious Extremism,’” (French), El Watan, March 10, 2015,

34 Zarcone, “A Rampart Against Salafism? The Political Usage of Sufism by Algerian Elites.”

35 Hana Saada, “Sufism Has Always Been Safety Value for Nation Against Extremism, Violence,” DZBreaking, February 2, 2019,

36 Zarcone, “A Rampart Against Salafism? The Political Usage of Sufism by Algerian Elites.”

37 Isabelle Werenfels, “Beyond Authoritarian Upgrading: The Re-emergence of Sufi Orders in Maghrebi Politics,” Journal of North African Studies 19, no. 3 (2014): 275–295.

38 Ibid.

39 Sambe, “Morocco South of the Sahara: A Strategy of Influence Proving Geopolitical Mutations”; Jean-Louis Triaud, “Tidjaniyya: A Transnational Muslim Brotherhood” (French), Politique Étrangère 4, 2010; and Isabelle Werenfels, “Maghrebi Rivalries Over Sub-Saharan Africa Algeria and Tunisia Seeking to Keep Up With Morocco,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, November 2020,

40 Sambe, “Morocco South of the Sahara: A Strategy of Influence Proving Geopolitical Mutations.”

41 Patrick Haenni, “The Hundred Year Anniversairy of the Alawiyya Brotherhood: Is a Postmodern Reform of Islam Possible?” (French), Institut Religioscope, études et analyses 23, November 2009, 7, 14,

42 “Cheikh Khaled Bentounes,” Cheikh Bentounes,

43 Ibid.

44 Khatir, “The Changing of Algerian Politics Regarding Sufi Brotherhoods.”

45 “At the Hundred Year Anniversary of the Tarîqa ‘Alawiyya, Bentounes Accuses the Press of ‘Stirring Up Controversy’” (French), Quotidien National Liberté, July 30, 2009,

46 Chiara Pellegrino, “Muslim Boy Scouts,” Oasis, September 3, 2017,

47 “The Hundred Year Anniversary of the Tarîqa ‘Alawiyya: A Celebration and a Message of Peace” (French), Journal Quotidien Liberté, July 16, 2009,

48 Lamine Chikhi, “Interview: Algerian Wants Reformist Sufi Role in Arab Spring,” Reuters, September 9, 2011,

49 Khatir, “The Changing of Algerian Politics Regarding Sufi Brotherhoods.”

50 Badreddine Yousfi, “Brotherhood Networks and Religious Mobility in the Western Algerian Sahara” (French) in Nicole Lemaitre (ed.), Religious and Spiritual Networks: From the Middle Ages to Today (French) (Paris: Éditions du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 2016), 147–160,

51 “Spiritual Islam and Contemporary Challenges,” UNESCO House–Paris and AISA International NGO, September 28–29, 2015,

52 Author interview with an Algerian Diplomat, WhatsApp, February 2021.

53 Yousfi, “Brotherhood Networks and Religious Mobility in the Western Algerian Sahara.”

54 Author interview with senior security counterterrorism officer, WhatsApp, February 2021.

55 Werenfels, “Beyond Authoritarian Upgrading: The Re-emergence of Sufi Orders in Maghrebi Politics.”

56 “Early Departure of the Attorney General Near the Algiers Court” (French), El Watan, July 26, 2007,

57 Nourredine Bessadi, “Algeria: Zawaya and Politics, Dangerous Liaisons” (French), Middle East Eye, January 3, 2018,

58 Lamine Chikhi, “Algeria’s Sonatrach Appeals to Sufi Preachers to Give Gas Plans a Lift,” Reuters, November 8, 2018,

59 “Mobilizing to Hurry the Zawiya Cheurfa’s Visit” (French), El Watan, May 2, 2016,

60 Bessadi, “Algeria: Zawaya and Politics, Dangerous Liaisons.”

61 Rédaction AE, “Tebboune Orders the Restitution of All of Algeria’s Old Mosques” (French), Algerie Eco, April 15, 2020,