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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Islamists fare well in an Arab world in revolt



Tunisian Islamists claim election victory (Source: AFP/Lionel Bonaventure)

By James M. Dorsey

The score is 1:0 in favor of the Islamists in this month’s Arab revolt match.

Islamists emerged from Tunisia’s first post-revolt election as the country’s foremost political force set to play a key role in drafting the country’s new constitution. With Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi dead, jockeying for political position has begun in earnest and Islamists who played an important part in eight months of fighting that led to his demise are demanding their share of power.

Hamas, the Islamist grouping that controls the Gaza Strip, has significantly strengthened its position at the expense of its arch rival Al Fatah headed by Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with the freeing of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit from five years in captivity in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prison.

Islamists also stand to gain in Syria as the country moves ever closer to armed conflict between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and protesters who increasingly feel that turning the other cheek in the face of a brutal government crackdown is neither paying them dividends on the bloodied streets of Syrian towns and cities nor in terms of support from the international community.

The rise of the Islamists in the wake of popular revolts sweeping a conservative swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf hardly comes as a surprise in a world in which the mosque was the only ideological opposition platform that alongside the soccer pitch provided a valve for the release of pent-up anger and frustration.

Gas and oil-rich Algeria, potentially the next Arab state to be shaken by the revolt to its core, could well prove a litmus test for the Islamists. Memories of the bitter civil war in the 1990s that pitted the military against Islamists who emerged victorious from the ballet box has so far dampened enthusiasm for renewed confrontation in a country that is simmering with discontent and that already witnessed initial mass anti-government protests early this year. The protests have since fizzled out on the streets of Algerians towns and cities but are alive and kicking in the country’s soccer stadiums where football fans regularly take on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the military and the Islamists.

For Algeria, however, the political geography of protest has changed. Algeria is now surrounded by three nations in transition: Libya, Tunisia and Morocco where the king has preempted protesters by pushing forward with constitutional reform. Disgust with the ruling military’s nepotism, corruption and inability to provide sufficient jobs fueled by the success of their brethren in the region ultimately runs deeper in Algeria than fears of renewed confrontation with the military or uncertainty over the Islamists real aims.

"Our songs focus on current events, on politics and the economy. We sing about politicians, about security, about terrorist attacks. We criticize the current government as well as the extremists of the (outlawed) Islamic Salvation Front. We also criticize the high cost of living in Algeria and the privileges enjoyed by the country’s elite, who send their children abroad to study while so many young Algerians are unemployed and live in poverty," said Amine T., a supporter of popular Algiers club Union Sportive de la Medina d'Alger (USMA).

In a region dominated by autocratic rulers bent on controlling the soccer pitch and benefitting from its popularity to polish their tarnish image, Algeria is among the most advanced in encouraging the emergence of soccer as a professional sport. As a result of the regime's reduced involvement in the sport, soccer fans have a tacit understanding with authorities under which they can say what they like as long as they keep their protests confined to the stadium.

"It’s not so much our slogans that worry the authorities, it’s how many of us there are. For example, when riots erupted in the Algiers neighborhood of Bab el-Oued earlier this year, the Algerian Football Federation temporarily suspended matches. They did this because they were worried that if the police couldn’t control a few dozen youths in the street, they certainly wouldn’t be able to control 60,000 football fans leaving a stadium. I think that the authorities don't actually have a problem with our chants: if we get our anger out inside the stadium, then that’s it, we don’t cause any trouble outside," Amine T. said.

"The chanting of the fans in stadia has continued to replicate the political situation," adds Loughborough University professor Mahfoud Amara, writing in the July edition of The Journal of North African Studies. "Football is becoming one of the few (allowed) spaces for people to express their frustrations overt the socio-economic and political conditions.”

The question is whether the Algerian government will continue to tolerate the stadium protests as its neighbors forge their way towards a more open society and how much longer the protesters will accept being confined to the stadium. Discontent with the government is already spilling out of the stadiums with small protests occurring on a daily scale over the lack of water, housing, electricity or calling for higher wages. A quarter of the population lives under the poverty line and unemployment is rampant.

"The country is on the edge of an explosion, the regime has only held on by spending billions, but for how long? This is just a postponement," said Sherif Arbi, a pro-democracy activist.

President Bouteflika has long justified his repressive regime with the fight against Al Qaeda’s affiliate in northwest Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. That argument is rapidly wearing thin. For the Islamists, Algeria constitutes an opportunity not only to further spread their wings but also to further demonstrate that pluralism has become an integral part of their political reality.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

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