When Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika won a third five-year term last April with a reported 90 percent of the vote, Algerians reacted with sullen disdain. It was just the latest in a string of crooked elections in Algeria and other countries that have tarnished democracy’s reputation in much of the Arab world. Now many Islamist parties in several Arab countries are reconsidering their commitment to electoral politics.
I arrived in Algiers shortly after the election to find the country’s Islamist parties in turmoil. Many of their natural supporters had boycotted the election, and their leaders were under intense pressure to quit the electoral process. One group, adherents to Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahhabism, had decided to do just that and withdraw into their own isolated communes. Criticism of electoral politics was also being heard among Islamists in Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Egypt.
I was struck by how much Algeria’s political landscape had changed since I lived there in the first few years after it won independence from France in 1962. Back then, Algeria was a hotbed of European communists and Trotskyites bent on launching a socialist revolution. After a military coup in 1965, the country slowly morphed into a breeding ground for Muslim militants just as determined to establish an Islamic republic.
That came very close to happening after Islamists won parliamentary elections in 1991, but the military again stepped in. The result was a decade-long Islamist insurgency and civil war that cost 150,000 lives and left Islamic radicalism in bad repute. (Diehard extremists still fight on in the mountains 60 miles east of Algiers, where attacks on police and army patrols were reported almost every day during my visit in June.) But the Islamization of the country continued apace. Today, many women wear the veil; the once dominant French-language media have increasingly given way to Arabic competitors.
Still, I found a deep malaise among many Islamists. In the mid-1990s, the Algerian military invited them to participate in elections as part of a strategy to neutralize them, and it worked. In 1995, a faction that today calls itself the Movement of the Society for Peace scored a second-place finish in the presidential election, and several MSP leaders were invited to become ministers in the new government. Fifteen years later, the MSP is still part of the coalition that supports Bouteflika, but it has very little to show for its loyalty, and its ties to the autocratic president have hurt its reputation. Its popularity has plummeted. Because the MSP ran as part of a multiparty bloc, it is impossible to know how many votes it won in April, but one indicator of the religious parties’ overall strength is the tally of the sole independent Islamist party in the race: just 176,000 votes.
The latest election has roiled even the MSP. One MSP faction split off to form a new party pledged to greater militancy. Another decided to challenge MSP leader Bouguerra Soltani from within. Both groups believe the party is losing its popularity and vitality by being part of the government. Soltani himself resigned from Bouteflika’s cabinet, though two other MSP ministers stayed.
I spoke to Soltani at his party’s headquarters, where he vehemently defended the strategy of participation. His main objective, he said, remained the same—to convince the military that “it is possible to work with Islamists” and entrust them with important ministries. But even MSP vice president Abderrazak Maki disagreed. He said the party should quit the government, concentrate on rebuilding its popular support, and press its agenda for a stricter adherence to Islamic norms from the outside.
The discontent has spread to other countries where Islamist parties have been willing to give multiparty democracy a chance. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which became the main opposition group in the 2005 parliamentary elections, is now debating whether to participate in elections later this year. One option for disillusioned Islamists is simply to drop out of the public realm, as Algeria’s Wahhabis did. Some may choose to join the jihad against the growing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. But another option is to revert to underground resistance, a prospect that does not augur well for the Arab experiment with authoritarian democracy.