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Getting in the vote

March 29, 2009

The Algerian government has decided to close some of the country’s mosques between prayer times for, you guessed it, security reasons:

“There may be attempts to carry out terrorist attacks as security forces are busy with the campaign,” said the same source. The officer believes that a number of prayers may hold “suspicious meetings” under the cover of religious meetings for “suspicious purposes.”

Neanderthal propaganda waffling aside, the purpose of this is obviously to disrupt Islamist opposition activity during the election campaign. I don’t think, however, that it’s much related to the two Islamist candidates running against Bouteflika: Djahid Younsi of the Islah movement, and the independent Mohamed Said, who is close to the popular Islamo-nationalist Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi and his former, banned Wafa Party. No candidate, Islamist or otherwise, is in a position to challenge Bouteflika — these “hares”, as they’re scornfully called, are just running against each other and/or to preserve electoral pluralism.

The politics of no hopeWhat the authorities actually fear is voter abstention. If participation is low, that’s a serious crack in Bouteflika’s legitimacy, after he already changed the constitution to be able to run. Several prominent political leaders in opposition have told Algerians to boycott the vote. For example, Kabyle politicians successfully led boycotts in previous elections, and are now trying to do so again. Boutef is there to campaign now (“je suis un authentique amazigh“), but for the regime, Kabylie is sort of a lost cause anyway.

More worrying for the regime is the Islamist opposition, which has country-wide appeal. Several prominent Islamist leaders are working actively to promote a boycott, including ousted Islah leader Abdullah Djaballah, a dissident ikhwani who unlike the mainstream Brotherhood refuses to collaborate with the regime, and, especially, the former FIS firebreather Ali Benhadj, who has been preaching the politics of refusal for years. Having found his niche as a kind of a hybrid between Malcolm X and Pastor Phelps, he exerts strong influence over the more radical and intransigent elements of the Islamist opposition all the way up to al-Qaida. (His exiled FIS co-founder, the comparatively moderate Abassi Madani, also supports a boycott.)

Here, then, we have a situation where a number of Islamists, secular intellectuals and Berber activists are all, for once, united. There is little common ground for a positive alternative, but they can all heartily agree about opposing Bouteflika. As April 9 approaches, their anti-vote campaign continues to pick up pace (and there is a nice website). The government has reacted forcefully to all this activism, with PM Ouyahia denouncing those calling for a boycott as “traitors” and darkly hinting at punishment for newspapers spreading the call, and with much money and effort being put into get-out-the-vote campaigns over the media and local administrations. And now comes the mosque thing, designed to shut Islamists out of their principal organizing venue — all forms of street politics are already banned under the emergency laws.

But while it is true that the Bouteflika campaign and his hapless opponents have the entire oil-fuelled state machinery of patronage and repression behind them, the boycotters have another, perhaps even more powerful ally: the fact that many if not most Algerians are utterly disgusted by the state of their nation, and that even many supporters of the president cannot see the point of voting as simply an empty ritual. So while the name of the winner is a foregone conclusion, the race really is on.

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