Algeria's Islamists unify ranks ahead of April poll

Algiers - Algeria's Islamist parties are joining forces ahead of April parliamentary elections in hope of reversing a long political decline and having a greater say in the future of the North African country.

But they face a firmly anti-Islamist government and an electorate with bitter memories of violence between Islamist militants and the state in the 1990s, which left an estimated 200 000 people dead.

The vote comes amid growing security and economic challenges along with speculation around who will succeed 79-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika - although experts say the real decision lies in the hands of the country's secretive elite.

Three leading Islamist parties - El Binaa, the Front for Justice and Development (FJD) and Ennahda - said in December they were forming a "strategic" alliance for the election, ahead of a full merger later in 2017.

In early January, the Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP), which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood, and a splinter group, the Front for Change, said they would reunite.

That could bring Algeria's fragmented Islamist movement together into just two parties ahead of the April poll, the exact date for which has not yet been announced.

"They do not expect great successes in the next election, so they are trying to gather themselves and form a common force," said political scientist Rachid Tlemcani.

Islamist parties in Algeria have realised that political Islam in its various forms has lost public support, he said.

Moderate Islamists have been forced to negotiate a difficult balancing act since the violence of the 1990s.

A radical movement, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), had been poised to win a parliamentary election in 1991 when the army stepped in to cancel it, prompting many FIS members to take up arms.

The "black decade" of violence that followed created divisions that last to this day.

 Joining forces 

The Islamists' previous experience shows that joining forces in elections is no guarantee of success.

At the last parliamentary election in 2012 following Arab Spring-inspired street protests, Islamist parties hoped they could replicate the gains of their peers in Egypt and Tunisia.

The MSP, which was part of the government, left it and joined forces with Ennahda and El Islah to fight the election.

But they suffered the worst electoral defeat in their history.

A coalition led by Bouteflika's National Liberation Front (FLN), which ruled Algeria under a single-party system from independence in 1962 until the early 1990s, kept its grip on power.

When Bouteflika controversially stood for a fourth term in a 2014 presidential election, Algeria's three main Islamist parties boycotted, calling it a "sham".

But the boycott did little to improve their fortunes.

Political scientist Rachid Grine said that since Bouteflika first came to power in 1999, Islamist parties had been nearly wiped out.

However, "if the elections are honest, the Islamists will be... among the winners," he said.

MSP head Abderezak Mokri, one of the country's most senior Islamist leaders, told AFP that taking part in the April poll was imperative.

He said his party would not call for street protests or a boycott.

"We refuse to throw oil on the fire because we want a peaceful political transition in the interest of Algeria," he said.

He said Algeria's economic and social difficulties would mean growing public opposition to the government.

That could play in the Islamists' favour, and experts suspect that if the MSP does well, it could join the next government alongside the FLN.

Mokri said the challenge facing Islamist parties was to become less of a fragmented movement.

Islamist leader Abdallah Djaballah, Ennahda's founder who later set up the FJD, agreed.

"Union is a necessity", he told AFP.

"We will meet the MSP soon and see what we can do together".

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