After Arab Spring, Is Algeria Next In Line For An Islamist Election Victory?

Two decades after its own civil war, Algeria was relatively calm as the revolutions of the past year rolled across most of its North Africa neighbors. But with legislative elections slated this spring, both pro-democracy and pro-Islamist parties are deman

Ghardaïa Street in Algiers (Daggett2008)
Ghardaïa Street in Algiers (Daggett2008)
Isabelle Mandraud

ALGIERS - In successive waves, messages have appeared in both French and Arabic on mobile phones across Algeria. The first, sent by the Interior Ministry, declared that "voting is an act of citizenship and responsibility." More recent messages sent on January 25 came from telephone providers like Mobilis. They encourage voters to register, but with mixed success. "It's as if, in France, Gaz de France got into the act!" said one irritated Algerian intellectual. Even imams have been asked to beat the drum in their mosques.

Less than four months before the legislative elections, which should conclude by mid-May, Algerian authorities are trying to mobilize an apathetic electorate by reminding them of what happened in 2007 when 65% of the electorate failed to show up at the polls, the highest rate of abstention ever recorded.

For the first time in 12 years, ten new parties have been given permission to hold their first congress, and are expected to be authorized to stand for election. It's then up to them to make their platforms known within the few remaining weeks. Some, like Amara Benyounes's Union for Democracy and the Republic (UDR), have been waiting for this moment for years. Others, like Islamist Abadallah Saad Djaballah, a jurist, former imam and current director of El Adala (Justice and Development Front), are on their third attempt to create a party.

With 42 formations already in existence, this liberalization of the political landscape should bring the number of parties to nearly 60, the same level reached in 1991 when an open and competitive electoral process was interrupted by the regime, which cancelled elections after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist formation, led voting in the first round of polls. The showdown set off a bloody civil war that claimed as many as 200,000 lives, and ultimately reinforced military rule.

Ali Laskri, Secretary General of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), is skeptical about the apparent new signs of political competition. "This isn't a sign of opening up – it's a way of fragmenting the electorate," says Laskri.

This main opposition party, which boycotted elections in 2002 and 2007 as a way of denouncing what they consider to be a locked system, is still not sure it will take part in the forthcoming elections. However, seeing as the future Assembly is to revise the Constitution, it has launched consultations with its militants and sympathizers.

Worse than fraud

"The regime's biggest mistake," says Mr. Laskri, "isn't even fraud -- it's having pushed Algerians to no longer believe in elections." For his part, former Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, who created the Democratic Front in 1992 without ever having been able to hold a public meeting, has decided not to take part. "These elections are a foregone conclusion," he says. "Those in power don't have confidence in the people, and the people don't have confidence in those in power."

After the "Arab Spring" saw Islamist parties emerge victorious in elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, Algerian Islamists are hoping for similar results. "If the elections are clean and transparent, the people will decide. We are ready, and – from what we're hearing in the ranks -- very confident," says Bougerra Soltani, president of the Social Movement for Peace (MSP) which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Created in 1990, the MSP, which has 51 members of parliament and has been part of the government for years, decided in early January to leave the presidential alliance, though leaving its four government ministers in place. It is now in the process of calling for Islamists – including former FIS militants -- to create an alliance. "All of those who have regulated their situation and enjoy civic rights are welcome. We welcome them as Algerians and not as former members of the FIS," Mr. Soltani told Le Monde.

The interview with the Islamist leader took place in his office where a statement is displayed from the nation's Council of Ulemas (Islamic scholars): "The Algerian populace is Muslim; it belongs to the Arab nation. Those who think it has changed paths or is dead are very much mistaken."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Daggett2008

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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