In January 2015, Abderrezak Makri, the leader of Algeria’s main Islamist political party, the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), announced that the party would embark on a new round of consultations with the ruling regime and the opposition.
The decision to undertake fresh discussions with the government and opposition parties about a political transition, economic reforms, and the reestablishment of the rule of law was perceived as a dramatic shift for a party that only the year before had boycotted presidential elections and demanded that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not be permitted to begin an unprecedented fourth term.
The announcement came as a surprise to analysts as well as the National Coordination for Liberties and Democratic Transition (CNLTD), an umbrella opposition group that refuses any kind of dialogue with the regime and of which the MSP has been a part since the coalition was formed in April 2014. Faced with complaints that the MSP was undercutting the opposition by working with the regime, Makri tried to justify the decision, claiming that the new consultations would promote the CNLTD’s objectives while allowing the MSP to present its perspective.
The MSP’s move should not have been unexpected. The MSP has always been pragmatic and favored dialogue and compromise with the regime. But while this approach sustained the MSP as a key player in Algeria for decades, it may no longer be effective. Instead, after years of working with what is known as le pouvoir (the power)—the country’s main nationalist party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), together with the bureaucracy and the military—the party has been co-opted. This has weakened its claim to be an opposition force, cut its support among the public, and led it toward a political dead end.
The Participation Approach
Since its creation in 1989, the MSP (formerly known as Hamas) has both courted the ruling regime and engaged in dialogue with it. While the MSP was supposed to serve as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Algerian branch, the party has preferred rapprochement to a revolutionary posture, even while it held on to the goal of establishing an Islamic state.
Its founder, Mahfoud Nahnah, advocated a three-pronged strategy resting on itidal (moderation), musharaka (participation), and marhaliya (gradualism). For the pragmatic Nahnah, dubbed el murshid (the guide), an Islamic state could only be established with, not against, the existing state. Consequently, the MSP denounced the armed violence of the Islamic Armed Movement—led by Mustapha Bouyali, considered the father of jihadism in Algeria—in the 1980s, and, in the 1990s, the party sought to distinguish itself from the radical Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which favored a takeover from the top, even if it involved armed violence.
The MSP continued this rapprochement even when the electoral process was interrupted in 1992 following the overwhelming victory of the FIS in the first round of legislative elections in December 1991. The second round, expected to take place in January 1992, never occurred; the FIS was banned, its cadres and sympathizers were imprisoned, and the extremist wing of the party issued a call to jihadism. Several jihadist groups erupted to fight what they called the “impious state,” and Algeria witnessed a bloody civil war that lasted for more than ten years.
In 1994, the MSP backed the establishment of the National Transitional Council, which exercised legislative functions in the absence of an elected parliament. That stance claimed the lives of several of its cadres, most notably one of its founding members, Sheikh Mohamed Bouslimani, who was assassinated in 1994 by the Armed Islamic Group, the most prominent jihadist group in Algeria, which opposed any sort of dialogue with the regime.
In 1995, the MSP responded to the state’s call for the relaunch of the democratic process and took part in presidential elections; its candidate finished in second place, right after the army’s candidate, Liamine Zeroual. Nahnah sought to run for president in 1999, but was disqualified because he was unable to meet a deadline for proving that he had fought against the French during Algeria’s War of Independence, as presidential candidates who were old enough to fight are required to do. He rallied behind the consensus candidate, Bouteflika, and refused to budge on his position despite criticism from his camp and several party activists.
The MSP also supported reconciliation policies instigated by the state that aimed to end Algeria’s civil war. In 1995, the party stood by the regime and refused to join the Sant’Egidio process, which brought opposition parties together in an attempt to end the fighting. Instead, the party supported the Civil Concord Law process, which Zeroual initiated in 1995 to allow jihadists who were not guilty of murder or rape to avoid prosecution by turning themselves in. The party also supported a referendum organized by Bouteflika in September 1999 backing that legal process.
Over time, as a result of its rapprochement and its strategy of musharaka, the MSP has joined several coalition governments and clinched a number of parliamentary seats and ministerial portfolios, including the ministry of industry. One of its former members, Amar Ghoul, is now a key figure in the Algerian political landscape and served as minister of public works.
As a pragmatic Islamist party, the MSP also adapts to emerging political realities. In 2012, hoping to take advantage of the Islamist wave overtaking neighboring Morocco and Tunisia, as well as Egypt, the MSP kept its distance from the ruling regime. In the run-up to legislative elections, it withdrew from a coalition with the FLN and another party that had been formed ahead of the 2009 presidential elections, only to join an alliance of Islamist parties (Nahda and El Islah) that fared poorly at the polls. Despite this, it left its four ministers in the government.
Headed Toward a Dead End?
Without a doubt, the MSP’s participation in the Algerian political system led to a greater professionalization of the party. Its activists became politicians and government officials who learned about the management of the state and nationalized their discourse and ideology. At the same time, the party’s cadres started to socialize with members of other parties and sought new political partnerships.
The MSP has created a niche for itself as an Islamist party that participates in the decisionmaking process, and it stands out as a significant player on the Algerian political scene.
However, the party seems to have reached a political dead end. Participation has come to mean regime co-optation. That co-optation has its roots in 1992, when the radical FIS was outlawed. Because Islam is an important component of Algerian society, the regime needed to show Algerians that Islamist parties still had a place in the political arena, and the MSP was the ideal tool with which to do that. The party agreed to take part in the country’s political process, in contrast with the FIS, which preferred to operate against the system. In return, the regime gave the MSP ministerial positions, parliamentary seats, and the opportunity to take part in the redistribution of the oil revenue, which brought significant benefits and privileges, including substantial monthly salaries for parliamentarians, a portion of which goes to the party.
But the MSP has also paid a hefty price for its approach. Initially, some thought the party could serve as a replacement for the FIS. But after watching the MSP compromise with the regime, the FIS’s voters and other would-be supporters were disappointed with the party. Today, the MSP is seen as a tool of the state, not a real opposition force or a true Islamist party, and it has lost its capacity to mobilize voters.
The party has also been hindered by other factors that are a by-product of its pragmatic policies of musharaka, including internecine disputes and other ideological and personal disagreements. The decision of its then president, Aboujerra Soltani, to back Bouteflika’s candidacy in 2004 dealt a heavy blow to the MSP, as those who disagreed with the move broke from the party.
In 2008, an intense dispute pitted Soltani against the party’s second-in-command, Abdelmadjid Menasra. Menasra accused Soltani of marginalizing party cadres who disagreed with him and of making major concessions to the government without consulting party activists. Indeed, 40 party cadres who supported Menasra were ousted from the MSP that year during the fourth party congress, where Soltani was elected to a second term. Soltani also agreed to the extension of Bouteflika’s presidential term and to a revision of the constitution that lifted the restriction that presidents could serve only two terms.
This dispute came to a head in April 2009, when Menasra split from the MSP to form a party of his own, the Movement for Preaching and Change (MPC), which attracted many MSP members, presidents of local assemblies, delegate mayors, and members of parliament and local councils. The exodus weakened the MSP and made it struggle with the MPC for popular support.
The MSP’s ideological transformation is another reason for its declining popularity. The party seems to have abandoned its long-held project of establishing an Islamic state, arguing that Algeria itself already honors the precepts of Islam. As the first sentence of the preamble to the party’s political platform reads: “Algeria is the land of Islam and one of the countries of the Great Arab Maghreb. It belongs to the Arab and Muslim world.”
This so-called Algerianization of the party has come under heavy fire. Some party members and cadres have perceived the nationalization of the party that was supposed to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s representative in Algeria as an abandonment of the core ideas set forth by Nahnah.
Meanwhile, pragmatic as they are, the MSP’s Islamists have gained an increasing interest in state governance issues such as constitutional reform, economic liberalization, and the fight against corruption. This has led the MSP to largely ignore issues that affect the everyday lives of voters, further weakening ties between the party and its disinterested grassroots.
All of these elements were factors in the setbacks the party suffered in the legislative elections of May 2012, in which it secured 48 seats out of 462, and in November 2012 local elections, in which the party secured only ten of 1,541 municipalities.
Makri, who took over as the MSP’s president in May 2013, sought to change the party’s course, portraying himself as the leader who would break with le pouvoir and make the party a true opposition force. That was evident in the party’s decision to participate in the CNLTD, when the MSP joined others in protesting a fourth term for Bouteflika and calling for a democratic transition that included the resignation of the president and the organization of early elections.
But Soltani, who remains a force in the party, criticized the move, threatening to remove Makri and ordering him to return the MSP to its tradition of dialogue and compromise. Soltani went further, declaring publicly that he would again be eager to take part in a government of national unity.
A Return to Moderation
The MSP’s loss of grassroots support means that the party may only survive as a tool of the regime, which wishes to present itself as democratic and inclusive of Islamist parties following the outlawing of the FIS.
For now, the MSP must choose between making an exit from its position of influence—which is not an attractive choice after twenty years in the corridors of power—and expressing its loyalty to the ruling regime.1 In other words, the party must decide between becoming a real opposition party and maintaining its special relationship with le pouvoir.
Given those options, the MSP’s decision to return to moderation and relaunch consultations with the regime comes as no surprise. While the MSP remains part of the opposition, it is neither hard-line nor confrontational. The party’s occasional criticisms of and tirades against the government are but an attempt to preserve its capacity (if any) to mobilize its base against the regime.
After two decades of working with le pouvoir, Algeria’s main Islamist party has witnessed a sort of “embourgeoisement.” Its officials have become accustomed to the benefits and privileges of power, and it might be difficult for them to give up their interests. Indeed, the MSP has become so tied to the regime, tamed, and co-opted that it cannot serve in any way as a real challenger or a counterweight to Algeria’s ruling authority.
1 Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970).