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Islamic Parties Retain Mixed Influence in Algerian Politics


Algeria's civil war broke out in 1992, after the military-backed government canceled legislative elections when the Islamic Salvation Front Party appeared poised to win. Today, the Salvation Front is banned, and its leaders under house arrest. But Islam still remains a significant political force in Algeria.

In a grim, seaside apartment building a few kilometers from Algiers, Abdelkhader Boukhamkham awaits the day when Islam's Sharia law will govern this North African country. That day will come, he says, when the Islamic Salvation Front party is finally be voted into power.

Mr. Boukhamkham is the spokesman and number three man of the Salvation Front, popularly known as the FIS. The party is banned in Algeria, and Mr. Boukhamkham did not want to be recorded during a recent interview with VOA. But he claimed that the FIS was well entrenched in Algerian society. No system, he said, can bypass the FIS.

Many here do not agree with Mr. Boukhamkham's assessment. Algeria is still recovering from a brutal civil war that began a decade ago, and initially pitted pro-FIS guerrillas against the country's military-backed government. An estimated 150,000 people were killed in the violence, which sputters on today.

Many Algerian politicians like Senator Chihab Seddik, of the pro-establishment National Democratic Rally party, argue Islam should not be mixed with politics. Mr. Seddik says Islam is a beautiful religion of tolerance and forgiveness, but when used for political aims, it appears warped and ugly.

Some analysts say Algerians have now found secular means of challenging the vested tribal, business, and military interests known here simply as "Le Pouvoir," The Power. One example, they say, is the year-long civilian revolt by ethnic Berbers in the eastern Kabylia region. Berber youth have clashed with security forces over demands for more jobs and more autonomy for their region. Most Berbers also boycotted last month's legislative elections.

Nonetheless, moderate Islamic parties retain significant grassroots support. During May's parliamentary elections in Algeria, the three legal Islamic parties captured 82 of the 389 legislative seats. While their total was down 21 seats from five years ago, Islamic parties still remain the second biggest political block, after the pro-establishment parties.

Slimane Chenine is spokesman for Algeria's Hamas party. Formally known as the Movement of a Peaceful Society, it is Algeria's second biggest legal Islamic party. The party has recently changed its nickname to HMS to distance itself from the militant Lebanese movement blamed for many killings in Israel.

Through an interpreter, Mr. Chenine said religious parties in Algeria have always been more popular than secular ones. He said that while the Hamas has retained its Islamic roots, it also respects freedom of expression and democratic laws.

Parties like the Hamas have nurtured their political support through community projects in low income neighborhoods like Bab el Oued, in Algiers. Resident Nourredine Zourdoune says he is a staunch Hamas supporter. Hamas and its leader, Mahfoud Nahnah, rejected violence during Algeria's civil war, and that, he says, is why he remains loyal to it.

But other Algerians have no interest in Islamic parties. That includes 32-year-old shop clerk Ali Abou Seif. Mr. Seif says he has no time for politics of any sort. Algerian politicians, he says, do not represent the people.

Many Algerians thought otherwise in 1992, when the Islamic Salvation Front basked in public approval. The young party had previously swept municipal elections with promises to rid Algeria of corruption, and return power to the people.

Today, the FIS, along with the military, is blamed for igniting the country's civil war a decade ago. Although Salvation Front fighters laid down their weapons under a 1999 government amnesty plan, the top two FIS leaders - Abasi Madani and Ali Belhadj - remain under house arrest.

Nonetheless, some politicians and analysts argue that, even now, the FIS remains an important factor in Algeria's political equation and must eventually become part of the political system. One of those politicians is former foreign minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi. Only when the FIS is legalized, Mr. Ibrahimi says, can Algeria emerge from its crisis.

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