Algeria: is a secular change still possible?

in Editor's Picks/Opinion

Algeria is formally a secular state, but religion continues to be instrumentalized for political purposes. While the Algerian constitution mentions Islam as the official religion, it says to guarantee freedom of religion. The state controls religious institutions through the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Awqaf.

In the aftermath of independence, the traditional religious confraternities (zaouias) were largely marginalized during the successive reigns of presidents Ben Bella (1963-1965) and Boumediene (1965-1978), being perceived by the socialist-oriented new power as a symbol of feudalism and tribal society. From the 1970s, the wave of Wahhabi swept over Algeria and all North Africa succeeding to fill the existing discursive vacuum in religious matters, especially in urban centers.

Formally, religion-based political parties are banned by the constitution. However, for three decades or, to be more precise, since Algeria’s first pluralist experience after the 1989 democratic opening, there had been a tendency to reduce the possibilities on the horizon to two: the military and the Islamist. Indeed, the first free elections in 1991 resulted in a tidal wave of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) and the ending of the electoral process by the generals in power. There followed a decade of civil war and a fully-fledged national tragedy.

Although no public debate has taken place concerning this decade, it continues to haunt the collective psyche of Algerians who would not want to ever experience it again.

Having come to power in 1999, Bouteflika completed the process of ‘national reconciliation’ launched a few years earlier by his predecessor, Liamine Zeroual. Many have already seen a rehabilitation of Islamists while they were totally defeated militarily. However, as a general-major of the Algerian army once argued: “[They] have defeated terrorism, but fundamentalism remains intact and this is a political matter”.

On a political level, in order to absorb their capacity to harm, Bouteflika has integrated the so-called moderate Islamists of Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP) in the various governments and eventually recycled some of its figures, who are associated since then with the corruption the Algerian regime.

In Algeria, some of the islamist actors are represented in the official political sphere where they express their own political intentions, while others, like Salafists, exist outside this sphere but still shape the electorate. The share of Islamist parties in the elected assemblies has considerably diminished and the different movements have become more deeply divided.

It is true that there is no direct relationship between the degree of religiosity of the population and the dominance of religious parties at the political level.

There are however social trends that must be taken into account. Different public opinion surveys show that most of Algerians associate religion with public life and want religion to be at the heart of political practice.

While according to the Afrobarometer 2015 survey[i], 78% of Algerians say religion is “very important” in their lives, the Arab Barometer 2017 survey[ii] shows that while most Algerians (64 percent) believe that the law should rest partly on sharia and partly on the will of the people, 29 percent state that they believe the law should rest entirely on sharia, and another 53 percent say they would prefer a religious political party to a non-religious one. 64 percent of Algerians disagree or strongly disagree with the separation between religious practice and socio-economic life. In addition, 44 percent of Algerians agree or strongly agree that the country is better off when religious people hold public positions in the state.

It should be emphasized that these trends are dynamic and that significant changes can occur at any time. However, the secular elite remains highly sensitive to any influence from radical Islamist movements and continue to dread to the utmost fear a seizure of power by them in case of free elections or popular uprising.

It must be said that the situation of the so-called democratic parties is in some respects worse than that of their islamist counterparts. They too could not escape the demonization policy orchestrated by Bouteflika since he came to power. Their political weight has considerably weakened and their speech remains inaudible for a large part of the Algerian population.

Nevertheless, it is imperative that seculars take advantage of the ongoing momentum of change in order to weigh considerable influence over domestic politics to support the building of a true civil state. History has shown that change never benefits forces that stay away from socio-political dynamics.

Often it is the void that pushes young people and, as a result, entire sections of society towards Islamist radicalization. For decades, more and more space has been given to Islamists, both in large urban centers and in remote areas. It is now necessary to recover the young, allow them larger spaces and invite them to a more open debate and wider exchange.



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