The map of Islamist opposition in Algeria has changed significantly during the past decade. Radical groups are in decline, as are the Islamist parties founded soon after the legalization of multiparty politics in 1989. At the same time, the leader of a new Islamist party stands a chance of defeating incumbent president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the April 2004 election.
Through harsh security measures and an amnesty program, the main terrorist group, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), has been reduced to a tiny—but still dangerous—organization. The turning point was the November 1995 presidential election, when voters defied a GIA threat of violence and turned out in massive numbers. The GIA declared the entire population "unbelievers" and unleashed a campaign of indiscriminate killing. The public, which previously had sought to distance itself from the war between terrorists and security forces, began to provide the security forces precious information about terrorists' whereabouts. By 1997, the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), declared a cease-fire, mainly to distance itself from GIA's atrocities.
The FIS, banned since the military annulled the January 1992 elections, which the FIS was poised to win, is permanently gone from the Algerian political landscape. Neither Algeria's secular democrats, the general public who fear a resurgence of violence, nor the military—the real decision-makers—will permit its return. FIS leaders Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj have been released from prison, but are banned from political activities of any kind. The FIS retains a small group of hard-core supporters, but the vast majority of Algerians who voted for the party in 1991 now seek more moderate vehicles to address their social, political and spiritual concerns.
The original moderate alternatives to the FIS, Movement for Social Peace (MSP) and Al Nahda, have become marginal. Their supporters are disillusioned, viewing the parties' participation in government as useless "collaboration" because it failed to advance their interests. Both parties had poor showings in the 2002 parliamentary elections. The MSP is also hobbled by the recent death of its charismatic leader, Mahfoud Nahnah.
Stronger are two newer Islamist parties, Al Islah and Wafa. Islah, which has the second largest number of seats in parliament after the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party, is the only credible legal Islamist party.
Wafa has a brighter future, although it is not yet legal. Many Algerians, including former FIS supporters, consider Wafa a moderate alternative to Al Islah, which has extremist tendencies and is seen as a FIS proxy. Wafa calls for establishing an Islamic state through peaceful means and espouses a liberal interpretation of Islam. Its leadership is highly competent and experienced.
Wafa's founder, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, has a chance of winning the presidential election if it is an honest and open contest and if there is a second round of voting between him and Bouteflika. Bouteflika is mobilizing a huge government apparatus to promote his campaign, and he maintains the support of some sectors. But by trying to satisfy everyone—his first government included an unworkable mix of Islamist and staunch secularist ministers—Bouteflika has managed to rally major political forces against him, including the current leadership of his own FLN party. The military's attitude vis-à-vis the election is the most critical factor. Its position is opaque, as usual. Recent indications suggest that Bouteflika has the support of part of the military, although other parts have suggested they will not back him. The military has indicated, however, that it will accept an Islamist president, provided he respects democratic principles, especially "one man, one vote, always."
Ibrahimi's electoral viability suggests how far the country has come. In 1995, popular MSP candidate Nahnah received only thirty percent of the vote. Many analysts attributed this poor showing to the population's fear that electing an Islamist would provoke another military intervention and bloody crisis. This same fear has helped to moderate the Islamist movement.
Moderate Islamist movements are now a permanent part of the Algerian political landscape. As long as the problems of corruption, social injustice and unemployment are not seriously addressed, political Islam will enjoy significant grassroots support. The so-called eradicators who dream of permanently excluding all Islamists from politics must recognize that such movements are one of the best guarantees of social and political stability because they resonate powerfully with Algeria's rapidly growing young population. At the same time, Islamists, especially the radical fringe of the movement, must realize that establishing a pure Islamic state at any cost is an unrealistic goal. Algeria's traumatic experience with more than a decade of extreme violence, which killed more than 150,000 Algerians, has inoculated the majority of citizens against extremism. In the best case scenario, Algeria could adopt the Turkish model, in which the military is the real guarantor of democracy, and in which moderate Islamists are allowed to capture civilian power through regular elections, as long as they accept the democratic rules of the political game.
Kada Akacem is professor of economics at the University of Algiers.