Algerian protesters at crossroads as Islamists spotlight

ALGER – Algeria’s pro-democracy movement is at a crossroads two years after ousting the country’s longtime leader, facing fears he was infiltrated by a group linked to a banned Islamist party during a dark era of conflicts in the 1990s.

Members of the European Rachad group cannot be clearly identified, nor 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 shadow role. Protesters began flocking to the streets of Algiers, the capital and other cities again from Hirak’s second birthday on February 22, after a year of lockdown of the virus.

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But now they are fewer amid fears that Rachad may be using Hirak’s “smile revolution” for a program of his own. 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. About 200,000 people have been killed and the nation has yet to heal.

On his site, Rachad claims to have taken part 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 don’t want to serve as a springboard to help them achieve power.”

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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 growing popularity sparked 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 the role of Rachad, others see dark intrigues promoted by the authorities. A constant slogan chanted or scrawled on posters during Friday marches is “a civil state, not a military one”. For the military, this is a deep insult to its “eternal bond” with the people and a sign that Rachad is one of the protesters.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has presented himself as a protector of what he called “Blessed Hirak”, but critics suspect that the authorities may be willing to divide the protesters with fear-mongering remarks about Rachad and multiple arrests of demonstrators during the demonstrations.

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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 denounced those who “sowed doubt, lies and rumors”.

Last week, Tebboune blasted what he called “subversive activities” with “illegal movements akin to terrorism … exploiting weekly marches,” a clear reference to Rachad. The press release after a meeting of the High Security Council, carried by the official APS press agency, also condemned the “separatist circles”, a reference to another group in search of independence for the Algerian Kabyle region, homeland of the Berbers .

Tebboune demanded “immediate and rigorous application of the law” to end these 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 among four people – all allegedly linked to Rachad – targeted by international arrest warrants issued in March by Algeria for alleged violations public order and security of the country, 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.

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“It seems that the importance given to the Rachad movement aims to create discord within the Hirak and to make fear of it abroad”, declared the political scientist Mohamed Hennad in 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 high-level 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 is the strength (of Hirak),” said lawyer and human rights activist Moustapha Bouchachi.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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