Radicalizing Political Islam

Historical details shine much light on the answer to the burning issue of the degree to which Islamic politics and democracy may be consistent, suggesting that the appropriate question may instead concern the conditions under which any reform/protest movement is likely to evolve in a democratic direction. Uneducated commentary tends naturally to focus on high-profile events–electoral reverses, coups, massacres–that may well obscure more than they explain. The behavior of the Algerian state toward Islamic political activists during the crucial formative period between the legalization of independent political parties with the adoption of a new constitution on 2/23/89 (resulting from the military dictatorship’s massacre of protesters the previous October) and the January 1992 military coup in response to the December 1991 electoral victory of the main Islamic party raises the question of whether or not any Algerian reform movement at that time would have been allowed by the military-intelligence power behind the throne to participate freely in politics.

Repression of the Press. Even as the moderate, secular reformist Hamrouche regime was ending the legal state monopoly on information and promoting press freedom in the spring of 1990, the Algerian Parliament was enacting harsh legislation to repress journalists who spread information that might be considered offensive or having negative impact on state security or national unity, a set of conditions vague enough to cover any criticism of any thin-skinned official. Reformers could participate in elections, but woe be to any journalist who reported campaign rhetoric critical of the current rulers!

Financial Discrimination Against Reformist City Governments. But the Islamic movement was remarkably capable of communicating its message without a free media and ran an effective electoral campaign for the June 1990 ¬†municipal elections, the first formal step following the enactment of the new constitution toward the construction of Algerian democracy. The response of the military-intelligence elite to Islamic democratic action was to change the laws to remove power from mayors before the elections. After the June electoral victory of the Islamists, the center blocked financial resources for communities where Islamists were taking control of local government. [Francalgerie, crimes et mensonges d’Etats 174-178.]

Military Planning to Annul Elections. Internally, the military regime was even more determined to prevent democracy. Army leadership passed the word to mid-ranking officers that the Islamists would be tolerated only so long as they received less than 30% of the vote in anticipated legislative elections. By the end of 1990, Defense Minister Khaled Nezzar had submitted to the civilian government a secret plan to prevent the democratic takeover of an Islamist regime. [171-173.] Attention of the military elite focused on stopping reform to retain power, rather than on the quality of governance.

One can imagine the lessons that such behavior taught the new Islamic democratic activists.

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