In 1990, Islamists led the Algerian opposition. Shortly after, with political pluralism having been established, they won in the municipal elections. Then they won the first round of the legislative elections, the results of which were later overridden by the army. Today, however, as the country is embroiled by an unprecedented wave of protests, it seems clear that the Islamists are not playing a prominent role, despite that two Islamist coalitions hold 48 out of the 462 parliamentary seats.
Speaking to the Associated French Press, Ahmida al-Ayash, a writer who was among the first to write about the Islamic movement in Algeria, explains: “They don’t enjoy the same popular support that they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.” There are several reasons for this, including changes in Algeria after the civil war (1992-2002), the effects of the Arab Spring, and the coming of age of a generation that was not involved in the conflicts of the nineties.
He goes on to say that although they did not participate in the protests as parties, individuals and streams within Islamic movements did participate in the 22 February Movement. They adjusted their rhetoric and opened up to secular parties who were their rivals. They gave up on their old slogan “The Muslim State” and replaced it with “democracy and civil governance.” This was evident in their leader’s speech, Ali Belhadj, deputy chairman of the Islamic Salvation Front, which was disbanded by the authorities, and the participation of a number of their local leaders in the marches on Friday. They carried the same slogans raised by the movement, slogans that called for bringing down the regime, freedom, and pluralism. The Islamists play a role in recruiting those who are 40 years old and older. They enjoy a strong position in several conservative cities, and their condemnation of the regime’s “gangs” resonates with mosques and school teachers.
With regards to the Islamists’ strategy for the critical presidential elections what they hope to achieve from it, Ayash explains that they are following because they do not believe that the regime will allow for an Islamist to rule. However, they are silently supporting Bin Qurainah by not opposing him. But they offer silent support to Bin Qurainah, that is, not to be hostile towards him. Their support may come out into the open if Bin Qurainah reaches the second round. In this case, the Islamists may lead the divided Islamic forces. However, he warns that “if Bin Qurainah became president, this would shock his opponents, especially those who are secular and democratic and would put them in an awkward position, potentially forcing them to ally with the authority. This could lead to a coup against the Islamists, which would legitimize the return of the army to the fore.