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Are Algeria’s Islamists Ready To Make A Political Comeback?

Officially dissolved in 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) continues to exert influence in Algeria, where it recently helped negotiate the release of 7,000 prisoners from the country’s bloody civil war. It may be the boost the Islamic group needs to

Are Algeria’s Islamists Ready To Make A Political Comeback?
Isabel Mandraud

ALGIERS Situated in the Bouzareah suburb of northern Algiers, Hachemi Sahnouni's modest dwelling overlooks Bab El-Oued, a working class neighborhood disfigured by excavators. Our host receives us in the library, a room filled with stacks of books. It was here, more than 20 years ago, Sahnouni says, that he, Ali Belhadj and Abassi Madani created the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

Sahnouni, 53 and legally blind, is proud to speak about the future release of the last 7,000 "brothers," or Islamic prisoners. The result of many months of negotiations with the government, the prisoner release also heralds the resurgence of a neo-FIS. "We have received a positive reply from a very, very high level," says Sahnouni. "National reconciliation is now evolving towards a general amnesty, which will allow us to turn the page on Algeria's tragedy."

This release, which the government has not denied and the Algerian press has widely reported, represents the last step of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's program of national reconciliation. Other highlights of the lengthy reconciliation process included the civil concord referendum of 1999, and the charter for peace and national reconciliation in 2005. The charter "pardoned" all those still in hiding in exchange for their rendition.

The release could take place July 5, the anniversary of Algeria's declaration of independence from France. "Or it could also happen on June 19, the beginning of the formal cease-fire. But it is 90% certain that it will take place around July 4 or 5," says Sahnouni, a former radical preacher. In exchange for their freedom, the 7,000 prisoners will have to sign a written pledge to lay down their arms definitively. The government is thus hoping to put an end to a conflict that cost roughly 200,000 lives between 1992, when legislative elections were scrapped, and the beginning of the ‘00s.

The negotiations between the Algerian state and a group tagging itself as the "delegates of those who accepted to lay down their arms' started three years ago. A negotiating "committee" was created on Aug. 27, 2008 and included former FIS officials (the outfit was dissolved in 1992) as well as representatives of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), of which the Al-Queda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb is an offshoot. Its seven members are: Hasssan Hattab, founder of the GSPC; Rabi Chérif Said, alias Abou Zakaria, and Mourad Khattab, better known as Abdel Bahr, also founders of the GSPC; Madi Abderrahmane, alias Abou Hajar, founder of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA); Ben Messaoud Abdelkader, alias Abou Daoud, former emir of the GSPC for the Sahara region; and Abdelfattah Zeraoui Hamadache and Hachémi Sahnouni of the FIS.

The starting point for the negotiations was a document containing 14 requirements, of which three have been made public. The first stipulates that the Algerian government lift the country's state of emergency (it did so in February), release prisoners and recognize their civil rights. The negotiators have yet to agree on the number of people qualifying for release, and on who should remain behind bars. Authors of collective massacres and of bomb attacks in public places will presumably not qualify for release. But Abdelrazak "El-Para" (his real name is Amara Saifi), a CSPC chief who kidnapped 33 western tourists in 2003, is likely to be freed.

"We do not exclude him from the amnesty," says Sheik Zeraoui Hamadache. "He is considered a prisoner, and he agrees to be part of the reconciliation solution as long as his freedom of speech is upheld."

Hachemi Sahnouni and Sheik Zeraoui Hamadache are now upping pressure on the Algerian government to follow through on what they consider a done deal. "We are warning the government before it is too late: if they don't put an end to the tragedy, the tragedy will continue," says Sahnouni. "It is either the path to reconciliation, or the path to more bloodshed," says Hamadache. "If nothing happens, Islamists will take up arms again, and civil war will follow. That's a war we want to avoid."

What is clearly at stake, besides the release of the prisoners, is the resurgence of a neo-FIS. "It doesn't necessarily have to take the shape of a party," says Sahnouni. "I look at the Arab revolts and I see that none was the working of a party." In reality, the 2005 charter for peace and national reconciliation formally bans the FIS from the political scene. This doesn't prevent the outfit's officials from trying to re-enter the political game, or take advantage of the current mood. "The FIS originally began as a political uprising," says Sahnouni. "But if people are not given their chance to express themselves through fair elections, no one will ever be able to reconcile them with those in power."

"This is an attempt to make a political come-back by operating a reconfiguration of the Islamic side that combines the Muslim Brothers, radicals and non-jihadist salafists, with the help of the government," says Hamida Ayachi, director of Algeria News and a specialist on the Islamic question in Alegria. "They are all using each other. The government is trying to remove the specter of a revolution similar to the one in Tunisia and Egypt. But President Bouteflika is also trying to bring together nationalist and Islamist elements, to the detriment of more democrats. He has often relied on this strategy."

The government has yet to gain the support of military officials, some of whom are staunchly opposing any kind of deal. On May 21, the president of the Algerian Senate, Abdelkader Bensalah refused to meet "perpetrators of violence that the people has banned from political life." Bouteflika had put Bensalah, together with the general Mohammed Touat, in charge of the consultations with political parties and other national figures for the review of the country's constitution.

Hachemi Sahnouni brushes such comments aside: "We have met with the government four times," he says, "and there are people in it that share our view."

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