How North African nations are dealing with Islamist resurgence

Leaders must subdue the Islamist movement without empowering radicals or undercutting moderates, analysts say.

By , Staff writer

Two car bombs in Algeria Wednesday provided jarring reminders of the Islamic insurgency that wreaked havoc there in the 1990s. It was a signal that yet another large-scale battle with militants may be brewing.

For weeks, the government has been fighting Al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the remote highlands of the North African nation. But these are the first attacks on the capital, Algiers, in years – one hit the prime minister's office in the city center and the other a police station in the eastern outskirts. Together the attacks killed at least 30 people.

In neighboring Morocco on Tuesday, three suspected terrorists exploded suicide belts and another was shot dead as police were chasing them. They were all wanted in connection with another suicide bombing on March 11.

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The governments of this region, ruled by entrenched authoritarians, face a confrontation with a growing Islamist movement. Some groups are rising up to challenge the government in elections, and others are becoming more violent.

The challenge for the leaders of Morocco and Algeria, say analysts, is how to subdue the Islamist movement without empowering more radicals or undercutting mainstream, moderate Muslim forces.

"What the Moroccans did was smart, by opening the door slowly, by allowing in [several] Islamist [groups]. That's one way of diluting the power of any one party," says Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"The worst thing that can happen from the point of view of the government is what happened in Algeria [in the 1990s]," she says. "All of the sudden they uncorked the bottle, and all the [political] support goes to the Islamists," which the government then tried to suppress, sparking a brutal civil war that started in 1992.

Rita Katz, director of the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) institute in Washington, confirmed that Wednesday's attacks were carried out by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the newly renamed group of veteran Algerian fighters from the civil war.

"They changed their strategy in the last few months to Al Qaeda [style of] targeting military positions and foreign companies. I believe they carried out this attempted attack on the prime minister. It really looks like them," says Ms. Katz.

Morocco has seen only a smattering of such violence recently, but analysts say the way it handles political opposition will determine whether radical elements of Islamist groups are empowered.

Political parties based on religion are banned in Morocco, but parties with "an Islamic reference" are permitted to run in elections as long as they follow the monarchy's rules. That means acknowledging the authority of the king and submitting to election laws that make it impossible for any one group to dominate the parliament. Some groups are participating in elections and gaining limited political power, while others reject the system entirely but maintain grass-roots support.

"In the Islamic world, the Islamist movements are close to the people because the governments aren't there. The people go with the Islamists. In every small place, every alley, there is [The] Justice and Charity Organization," in Morocco, which rejects political participation, says Mohammed Darif, a political science professor at the Hassan II University in Mohammedia, Morocco. "Any Islamist group that supports the government will lose their popular support."

Another group, The Justice and Development Party, is taking a different route. It is the third-largest political party in the Moroccan parliament and the leading group with an "Islamic reference." It is expected to garner even more seats in parliamentary elections planned for September.

But this political success has come at a price. The group is careful to emphasize that they view religion and politics as separate spheres and say while they support reforms along Islamic values, those values are similar to many democratic ideas. They chose to limit the seats they ran for in the last election, a step to show the government they are not seeking too much power too quickly.

"We believe that as an opposition party we will help channel grievances and integrate grievances from the society. The stability of the system is related in part to the existence of these kinds of channels, and as a party we offer this," says Mustapha Khalifi, who is organizing the party's political platform for the upcoming elections.

While better positioned to push for reforms, they are not as popular as the outlawed Justice and Charity Organization, which has a broad social services network and rejects the monarchy and political participation. It says it supports a mix of Islamic spiritual guidance in politics with democratic, nonviolent principles.

"We are completely marginalized because we don't accept the nature of power. We think it's not a democratic way. It's based on the power of one, the king," says Nadia Yassine, the daughter of the leader of the Justice and Charity Organization. She was jailed once and now faces trial for saying the kingdom should become a republic.

"We don't want to dirty our hands ... so the only way we have to resist to this very antidemocratic power is to stay on the margin, to stay in the true opposition," she says.

But popular support and the ability to make social reforms may not translate into making tangible political reforms.

"There is a very definite risk for Islamic parties to participate in a government because the voters will hold them responsible and say 'Why didn't you do more,' but parties that reject violence but at the same time reject political participation, how are they going to have an impact on political process?" says Ms. Ottaway.

Across the African continent, Egypt has taken a very different tack with the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist movement that has spread throughout the region.

The group is banned, and its members are routinely rounded up in mass arrests by the government. It has tried to get around curbs on its activities by running independent candidates in parliamentary elections.

Jordan has taken a similar approach, both cracking down and including Islamists. It has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islamic Action Front to participate in parliament.

"The cost the Egyptian regime has been paying for limiting the Muslim Brotherhood has been very low in the short term," says Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, who, with Ottaway and Nathan Brown wrote a report on Islamist movements last year.

But by stifling the opposition completely, "You risk pushing the groups to be more radical ... you're making them a security risk in the long term and it pushes you farther away from reform," says Mr. Hamzawy.

Two weeks ago, the Egyptian government rushed through changes to the country's Constitution that, among other things, banned political parties based on religion. The move is seen as a strike against the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Egypt has also cracked down on more moderate groups such as the al Wasat party, a more liberal offshoot of the Brotherhood, and smaller, secular groups.

"In Egypt you see a government scared of its own shadow. They are not even allowing the al Wasat party or [secular leader] Ayman Nour so they are creating polarization, and in that situation the only group likely to survive is the Muslim Brotherhood. So they end up in a head-to-head competition with the Brotherhood ... they are not diluting the power of the Muslim Brotherhood," says Ottaway.

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