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Maghreb – Arab spring in the ballot box

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The foreseen contagion did not happen in Algeria. Islamic parties have found a new majority in Tunisia, morocco, Egypt, where they dominate parliaments, not so in the largest North African country. The Green Alliance – formed by three Islamic movements: the Movement for society and peace (MSP), El Islah and Ennahada – lost the legislative elections in Algeria. On May 10th, Algerians have once again chosen the National Liberation Front (FLN). The former single party won 47% of the vote and the coalition, with the National Democratic Assembly (RND), can count on an impressive 62% of MPs. This is the absolute majority they need to change the Constitution, as President Abdelaziz Boutefika promised. The Green Alliance, placed third, immediately cried foul, saying that the elections were rigged and that popular participation (42.3%) was too low. Yet, more people went to vote this turn than in 2007. International observers from the EU, the African Union, the Arab League, and the UN underscored irregularities but stressed that the exercise had been free and fair.

M2Some observers said Algerians made a choice against the tide. Indeed, FLN and RND – which were in government before – received the support of government machinery; even though this year campaign has been open and relatively pluralistic. The FLN is Boutefika’s party, and the President’s appeal for the vote surely influenced voters. Besides, in a ew weeks, Algeria is posed to celebrate 50 years of independence, which was secured by the FLN. The Islamic opposition showed divisions within the Green Alliance. The MPS was in government with FLN and RND. The fundamentalists of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) are not trusted by citizens. They were controlling most local governments until 1991. Their rule was blocked by the military. While in government, FIS gave a poor impression of its ability to manage local administrations. Also, their use of violence to counter the military take-over was a powerful vaccine against their return to rule, the truth is that the majority of the population do not want them.
M3Other read the situation from a different perspective. The FLN is a party that founds its legitimacy on the ‘revolution’ that brought independence. Yet, it is a conservative party. FLN was instrumental to approve the new code of the family in 1984, a code discriminating women. In the same year, parliament did not approve a Boutefika’s proposal to reserve 35% of government appointments to women. FLN leaders often speak following cultural patterns similar to those of the fundamentalists. In a way, there is already a great Islamic majority in Parliament.
Whatever the case, Algeria is an exception within the Arab spring context. The country did not renovate its leadership, Boutefika has been in power since 1999, and Islamic parties did not fare well at the elections. Many Algerians say they had their political spring in 1988 when, after a popular revolt suffocated in blood, Algeria opened up to multiparty politics and a certain level of press freedom. The new Constitution and presidential elections in 2014 will be the gauge to measure how the country is moving towards becoming a modern democracy, a transition that was never completed. The real issue is power. The President is the highest leader. However, no one can detain power in Algeria without the support of the military. Even Ahmed Ben Bella, first President, was approved by the military.
The presence and influence of the military is the common trend that links the Arab springs. In Egypt, after the fall of Mubarak, power rests with the Supreme council of the armed forces. The military said they will hand over power to a new president, yet Egyptians went to vote for the first turn of presidential elections without knowing what power their future president will have. The Constituent Assembly which was supposed to rewrite the Constitution has been suspended after the Muslim Brothers gained full control of it, emptying the assembly of plurality. It is difficult to foresee a peaceful transition, since the parliament is controlled by fundamentalists. The military are a economic and financial power. They receive large funds from the USA in exchange for peace with Israel. They are also a cast onto themselves, with a strong sense of mutual support and belonging.
The armed revolutionM4 in Libya brought various militias to power. Building a new national army means to disarm these militias. This is a difficult exercise which requires a skilful allotment of power and financial resources. The future of Libya depends on this balancing of powers.
In Tunisia, the army has allowed the revolution to take hold simply by not taking sides. For the time being, the army remains uncommitted; it might reclaim a role if things do not move along the lines they like.
Islamists are not facing the duty to manage power at national level. With the exception of Algeria, Islamic parties are the new political horizon in the region. Their success is the fruit of the political void created by previous governments. The new political forces anchor their success to the national identities refused by authoritarian governments, and to the frustration felt by the people for the failure to create a Palestinian state. The work done by Islamic charities to support the poor helped the political swing in northern Africa. People expect Islamic parties to take care of them, especially in this time of crisis.
The test of power management will tell us if Islamic political parties are competent and capable. Iran and the Gulf states enter modernity thanks to oil, but forgot to bring along the dignity of the person. This ‘dignity’, so much hailed by the Arab revolutions, is today at a crossroad. Only time will tell which road will be travelled.

Luciano Ardesi

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