Islamists fare well in an Arab world in revolt

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. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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