By Ademe Amine
In a nation scarred by a decade of terror violence, reactions to the rapid rise of an Islamist party in Tunisia were varied and contradictory. Ennahda’s electoral win evoked painful memories for victims of Algeria’s Black Decade, but gave a powerful boost to local Islamists.
“In Arab countries today the only real alternative comes from the Islamist movement, because it alone represents the majority of the population and meets their aspirations,” argued Bouguerra Soltani, chairman of the Movement for a Society for Peace (MSP).
Soltani, whose Islamist party has a seat in the People’s National Assembly and has been involved in government since 1995, has no doubt that what happened in Tunisia can be replicated in Algeria.
“The Islamist movement will win the next elections in Algeria, provided they are transparent,” he said.
Like his rival, Abdellah Djaballah did not rule out the possibility of a “knock-on effect” for the Islamist groundswell in Algeria.
“As a party, we work towards integration in the Arab world; we cannot remain apart from what is happening,” said Djaballah, who recently formed a new party, the Justice and Development Front (FJD).
“Why do people cry wolf when an Islamist party wins in the Arab world, yet applaud any other party, even if it has cheated?” wondered Djaballah, who was a founding member of the Ennahda party in Algeria in the early 1990s.
Abdelmadjid Menasra, a member of the National Front for Change (FCN) and a dissident from Soltani’s party, argued that Islamists’ success in Tunisia is a result of poor decisions taken by the deposed regime.
“From the time of President Habib Bourguiba through to Ben Ali, in other words for more than fifty years, the two regimes had forcibly imposed secularism on the Tunisian people,” he said. “As soon as the people were given the opportunity to express themselves freely, they rejected secularism.”
For many Algerians, however, the success of Rachid Ghannouchi’s party rekindled the memories of the darkest moments of Algeria’s recent history. Memories of terrorist violence are still vivid among survivors of the Black Decade.
“We are emerging from an atrocious civil war which cost us 200,000 lives; the wounds and the pain are still raw, and we’re not ready to live through that same scenario again,” said Adja, who lives in Bentalha, a district in the east of Algiers, which witnessed some of the worst bloodshed of the civil war.
For Said, who works for a security company, the word “Islamist” is associated with the massacre in the Boulevard Amirouche in the centre of Algiers in 1995.
“I saw the bodies of children and women, torn to pieces in a booby-trapped bus outside the central police station,” he recalled.
“I’m not against Islam, but Islamism deprived me of the chance to live with my father,” said Nadia, an economics student, her voice choked with emotion. Her father, a civilian working at the national defence ministry, was assassinated in December 1998.
While fears of terror violence loom over some elements of Algerian society, some academics try to keep the emergent regional trend in perspective.
“There will be no theocracy in Tunisia,” political scientist and former Algerian foreign ministry official Abdelaziz Djerad told a national radio on October 25th. “Our leaders in the Maghreb are confusing a number of issues. Nor do I think that Libya is moving towards theocracy. Perhaps there will be a slightly more Muslim flavour than elsewhere. I don’t think the Maghreb will be threatened with theocracy.”
Maghreb societies need to learn from the Tunisian experience and avoid any drift into fundamentalism, he added.
“What will happen in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood is extremely important,” Djerad added.”Furthermore, there is an international tendency to accept Islamists playing a role in the political sphere, but acting alongside other patriotic and democratic forces. One should not ignore the forces which express themselves in the social and cultural realities of Arab-Muslim countries.”