ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) – Algeria’s pro-democracy movement is at a crossroads two years after ousting the country’s longtime leader over fears he was infiltrated by a group with links to a banned Islamist party for a dark period of conflict in the 1990s.
Members of the Rachad group, based in Europe, cannot be clearly identified and neither do they announce their presence. But it is widely believed that they are among the thousands of Hirak movement protesters who march every Friday. The Algerian president and his powerful army blasted Rachad, without naming him.
The Hirak movement forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down in 2019 with its massive weekly protests peacefully demanding a change in Algeria’s opaque power structure in which the military plays a crucial parallel role. Protesters resumed flocking to the streets of Algiers, the capital, and other cities from the Hirak’s second anniversary on February 22, after a year of lockdown of the virus.
But now there are fewer amid concerns that Rachad could use the Hirak’s “smile revolution” for his own agenda. The Rachad debate centers on the possibility of reopening the door to the dark past when Algeria waged a deadly war with Islamist extremists seeking power. An estimated 200,000 people have been killed, and the nation has yet to heal.
On his site, Rachad claims to have participated in the Hirak marches since their creation in early 2019, and claims that he “banishes all forms of extremism … and advocates non-violence”.
Such claims fail to convince Ahcene Khaznadji, a 65-year-old teachers’ unionist who took part in some 30 Hirak marches – and says he won’t do it again.
The marches “have reached their limit,” he said. “Above all, it appears more and more that the Islamists are trying to take over, via Rachad. I fought the Islamists at university in the 1980s and, politically, in the 1990s, ”Khaznadji said. “Today, I do not want to serve as a springboard to help them gain power.”
Rachad, whose origins date back to 2007, is widely regarded as Islamo-conservative. Two of its leaders, based in Geneva and London, were members of the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, a party whose rise in popularity sparked the years of chaos. On the verge of winning the 1991 national elections, the FIS was banned, a military junta took control of Algeria, and the extremist insurgency degenerated into all-out war.
Conspiracy theories have long abounded in Algeria. In the case of the Hirak, where some see an exaggeration on Rachad’s role, others see dark plots promoted by the authorities. A constant slogan chanted or scrawled on posters during the Friday marches was “Civil status, not military”. For the military, this is a deep insult to its “eternal bond” with the people and a sign that Rachad is among the protesters.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has presented himself as a protector of what he called “Blessed Hirak”, but critics suspect authorities may want to divide protesters by scaring Rachad and several arrests of protesters during the protests .
The March issue of the army’s monthly magazine, El Djeich, called Rachad, without naming the group, “bats that prefer darkness and gloom.” In its April issue, he denounces those who “sow doubt, lies and rumors”.
Last week, Tebboune blasted what he called “subversive activities” of “illegal movements close to terrorism … exploiting weekly marches,” a clear reference to Rachad. The declaration at the end of a meeting of the High Security Council, relayed by the official news agency APS, also condemned the “separatist circles”, a reference to another group seeking independence of the Algerian Kabyle region , homeland of the Berbers.
Tebboune demanded “the immediate and rigorous application of the law” to put an end to such activities, saying: “The state will be intransigent”.
Authorities seek to arrest Rachad members for unraveling what they claim to be a plot to destabilize the nation.
One of the group’s founders, Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a former diplomat living in London, is one of four people – all allegedly linked to Rachad – targeted by international arrest warrants issued in March by Algeria for alleged attacks on public order and national security, APS reported. A fifth person, Ahmed Mansouri, a former FIS member arrested for joining a terrorist group in the 1990s and then released, was arrested again in February for his alleged central role in the plot, including funding “secret activities” by Rachad.
“It seems that the importance given to the Rachad movement aims to create discord within the Hirak and to arouse fears about it abroad,” political scientist Mohamed Hennad told the daily El Watan.
Many are now wondering if they should join the Friday marches.
“Doubt has (entered) and the demons of the 1990s are awakening,” journalist and activist Hirak Ihsane El Kadi wrote on March 23 in a blog on independent online radio M. But he argued that supporters of Rachad should not be ostracized.
A group of university professors and leading supporters of the pro-democracy movement marched together last Friday at the 112th Hirak protest in front of a banner calling for unity.
“It is unity that makes the strength (of Hirak),” said lawyer and human rights activist Moustapha Bouchachi.