Algerian Islamist banned from presidential poll awaits turn
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Algerians go to the polls on April 17 in a presidential election that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is widely expected to win. FRANCE 24 caught up with senior Islamist leader Ali Benhadj, who has been barred from running in the race.
Setting up a meeting with Ali Benhadj, a fiery Algerian preacher and co-founder of the outlawed Islamist political party, Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), is not easy, to say the least.
Benhadj may be a free man now – after spending the past two decades in and out of Algerian jails – but he is still under constant police surveillance.
After multiple phone calls, we are finally received in a very modest house in Les Eucalyptus, a southeastern suburb of the capital, Algiers.
The rather austere living room features a shelf stuffed with books and trinkets, and a faded rug piled with four mattresses around a low coffee table. On the oilcloth covering the table, glasses of fruit juice, tea and cakes – the mandatory offerings of Algerian hosts – await the guests. This house does not belong to Benhadj; it’s his brother-in-law’s residence.
A few minutes later, Benhadj himself arrives, dressed in a blue-grey khamis, or flowing shirt, and a white arrakiya, or Islamic skullcap.
It’s hard to believe the bespectacled man is the fiery preacher who delivered violent sermons against the Algerian ruling party at the al-Sunna mosque in a working-class neighbourhood of Algiers more than 20 years ago.
At 58, Benhadj’s smooth, dark face bears almost no wrinkles. Behind gold-framed glasses, his eyes twinkle almost mirthfully – disconcertingly at odds with his defiant, heated discourse.
In early February, the co-founder of the banned Islamist FIS party went to the Algerian Interior Ministry headquarters twice to register himself as a presidential candidate in the April 17 election.
Both times, he failed.
"I was stopped because I am banned from making public appearances under Article 26 of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. It prohibits me from exercising my civil and political rights,” explains Benhadj.
The reconciliation charter was proposed by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2005 as a means to bring closure to the brutal 1990s civil war, which killed around 200,000 people.
The charter, which was adopted in 2006, granted an amnesty to Islamist militants who laid down their arms, as well as to Algerian security forces for abuses committed during the “Dirty War”, as it’s called across Algeria. The charter explicitly states that the banned FIS party will not be reinstated.
But days ahead of the April 17 poll, Benhadj is railing against the state’s failure to accept his presidential candidacy.
Seated cross-legged on the living room mattress, Benhadj expounds that “the only criteria that can bring out the truth [in Algeria]” would be to allow the FIS to participate in an electoral battle. "Only the polls will judge whether the activist base of the FIS has expanded or diminished,” he notes.
An ailing presidential candidate for stability
Benhadj is not the only critic of Algeria’s April 17 election. The incumbent, ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is running for a fourth consecutive term after a 2008 constitutional amendment scrapped an existing two-term limit and increased the presidential term from four to five years.
“The third term was already too much. The fourth is sheer stupidity,” said Mohamed Chafik Mesbah, a leading Algerian political expert and author. “It would be logical for him [Bouteflika] to retire and focus on his recovery. There is this pathological tenacity, which could have dire consequences.”
The 77-year-old Bouteflika has been too ill to campaign and has relied instead on his former prime minister and allies, who have crisscrossed the vast North African country plugging their candidate.
Despite his absence on the campaign circuit, most analysts predict Bouteflika will win the April 17 election since he has the backing of the country’s powerful military and bureaucracy. In the last presidential poll, in 2009, the incumbent won 90.2% of the vote with an official participation rate of 74.5% – a figure international monitoring groups such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace called “far too high to be credible”.
Bouteflika is widely credited with ending the grotesquely bloody 1990s "Dirty War" and bringing stability to a country still convulsing from the violence – a track record that has won him considerable loyalty among many Algerians.
At a campaign rally in the western Algerian region of Chlef last week, a Bouteflika supporter told Reuters the longstanding president was “like a father to us. He means stability, security. We supported him yesterday, and we are loyal, so the least we can do is recognise what he has done," said Fatima Benahou, a public administrator.
Algerian activists say ‘Enough’
But international human rights groups have condemned the crackdown on protesters opposing Bouteflika’s fourth term in the lead-up to the April 17 poll. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on Algerian authorities to rescind a 2001 law banning all demonstrations in Algiers.
“The open-ended, blanket ban on demonstrations in the capital has been in effect almost as long as Bouteflika has been president,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Is it any surprise that the latest victims of the crackdown on protests are those who peacefully oppose his election to a fourth five-year term?”
Rights groups have also criticized the clampdown on members of the Barakat (Enough) movement, which has attempted to stage anti-Bouteflika candidacy demonstrations in the Algerian capital. Police have prevented Barakat activists from reaching demonstration sites and temporarily arrested members.
Escaping the Arab Spring
For Benhadj, the April 17 presidential election is a moot issue that does not address the tough questions facing the Algerian state.
Like many Algerians, Benhadj believes that if he is re-elected, Bouteflika plans to create a US-like post of vice president.
“The purpose of these elections is not so much the reelection of Abdelaziz Bouteflika but the appointment of a vice president. This will be done after the revision of the constitution announced by the end of the year. People will vote for a president but in six months or a year, they will have a head of state for who they have not voted.”
In the lead-up to the election, the FIS website posted a statement by Abassi Madani, the other party co-founder who is currently in exile in Qatar, calling for a boycott of the vote.
"We do not support any candidate,” dismisses Benhadj, before calling for a “political transition” that is inclusive, with “all political actors”.
For the moment, that prospect looks unlikely.
The brutal 1990s civil war was sparked when Bouteflika’s ruling FLN party scrapped the 1992 election second round, which the FIS was widely expected to win.
The bloodshed that followed has since made most Algerians averse to instability. While neighboring Tunisia and Libya launched uprisings in 2011, Algeria resisted the Arab Spring. The ensuing upheavals in post-Arab Spring nations have convinced many Algerians that their path of non-resistance was a wise choice.
But Benhadj is not convinced that this stability can hold. “People can fall asleep, but there’s the image of the volcano – one day, it can wake up.”