Much has been said and written about the rise of populism around the world and the threat it poses to traditional politics, dominated as it has been by the centre right and centre left. As the new wave of populism sweeps across various continents, the Middle East has been somewhat absent from the conversation. Crushed under the weight of authoritarianism, the region is seen to be immune from populist backlash and, moreover, had its populist moment under the wave of Pan-Arabism, also called Arab nationalism, peaking during 1958-61 in a political union between Egypt and Syria, in the form of the United Arab Republic.
The Arab Spring could be held up as a populist moment but there are important differences between the current strain of populist politics and the mass uprising which began in Tunisia in 2010. Firstly, there was no single leader around whom protestors rallied behind. This is a key marker of populism, which did not exist during the Arab Spring. Leaders like the former US President Donald Trump, India's Narendra Modi and Hungary's Victor Orban are typical of the top down, elite-led popularism garnering power and momentum. Whatever one may think of the Arab Spring, it was a genuine bottom-up movement calling for democracy.
A second important difference is that the Arab Spring was a revolt by the masses against authoritarianism and not, as is the case with the populist backlash, fuelled by fear over minorities. A dark undercurrent of racism flows through the current wave of populism, especially in India where the Muslim minority faces horrific levels of discrimination. The same crop of populist leaders inspiring these movements fuel racial and culture divides and present themselves as "heroes" in a war waged on two fronts: the manufactured culture war and the feud against an imagined global elite. That said, it would be inaccurate to assume that the Middle East is fully immune to populism. Under the right conditions, populism can become a major force, a fact that was powerfully demonstrated to me during a recent trip to Algeria.
Algeria's Islamist Parties
The North African country continues to defy many of the long-held assumptions and stereotypes common amongst Western analysts. I was invited by a member of the governing coalition, the National Construction Movement (NCM), known in Arabic as the Harakat Al-Bina' Al-Watani. With 39 seats out of 407 in Algeria's People's National Assembly, the party has the fifth highest number of elected representatives. The President of Harakat Al-Bina' Al-Watani is Abdelkader Bengrina. He is a former member of Algeria's largest Islamist party, the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP), a self-avowed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. With 65 seats, MSP is second only to the National Liberation Front (FLN), the party which spearheaded Algeria's liberation movement against the French. In one of the many splinters within the Islamist groups, Bengrina left the MSP in 2008, alongside other dissidents.
Though unfamiliar with details of the split between Bengrina and Algeria's Muslim Brotherhood, the reasons for their differences became all too apparent during the 61-year-old's address at the 10,000 capacity International Conference Centre where thousands of party members, foreign delegates, including representatives of various government and political parties gathered to celebrate the second congress of Harakat Al-Bina' Al-Watani.
"Must Offer Ourselves as Spies"
"Our nation is our creed" declared Bengrina during his hour-long address, steeped in the kind of nationalist fervour typical of populist leaders elsewhere. "Our country is a belief and an idea, and whoever neglects his country, it will be easy for him to neglect his religion and belief," Bengrina declared while laying out NCM's vision. "Whoever neglects his country, it will be easy for him to neglect his honour, homeland and people," he continued. "The homeland is soil and sovereignty, and the homeland is a state and institutions. Whoever tears the fabric of society and united the people is a traitor. Whoever abandons an inch of the homeland and does not defend it, is a traitor. Whoever distorts the institutions of his state or abuses them is a traitor."
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Evoking nationalist sentiments further, Bengrina urged Algerians to offer themselves as "mukhbirs" – informants – against anyone who wishes to undermine the country's security and prosperity. He made the remark within the context of Algeria's long feud with Morocco. The two countries have bitter differences over Western Sahara, where Algiers backs the Polisario against Rabat. The nationalistic crescendo ended with a narration of the prophet Muhammed (PBUH) justifying "love of the homeland".
Beside Bengrina's strong appeal to nationalism, which had become a source of unease for several delegates I spoke to, there was little to separate between the political programme of NCM and other Islamist parties. There was the unequivocal denunciation of violence. In fact, Bengrina went beyond most leaders on this issue. "None of us hurt the elites and challenge the institutions," he said extolling his party's non-violent stance. "None of us sow doubt and confusion, none of us conspires against the institutions of his state." For Bengrina "democracy is the gift of civilisation for making political change". Speaking about Israel and Palestine, which featured heavily throughout the event, including addresses by the major Palestinian factions, Bengrina described it as "our greatest concern".
Nonetheless, in the days that followed Bengrina's rousing speech, all the talk had come to be about his powerful appeal to nationalism. What did Bengrina mean when he said, "our nation is our creed?" Is he really asking Algerians to "spy" on their fellow citizens on behalf of the state? Is Bengrina a new model of Islamist leaders and does his party represent a future of political Islam elsewhere?
The Tension within Islamism
Since their founding, there has existed a tension within Islamist political parties over the universalist concept of Ummah (Islamic community of believers), a supranational or transnational union and the idea of a nation state as the post-colonial normative model for how the Muslim world is politically arranged. "Islam is not Algerian, Tunisian or Egyptian. Islam is universal" remains a common sentiment amongst many Islamists. As this tension played out in Algeria, pan-Islamic aspirations were said to have been dismissed as irrelevant, to the context in which parties like the MSP and its later rival, NCM, had operated.
"The struggle against French colonial forces and, later, against 'imported' extremism together bolstered the requirement of indigeneity and hypernationalism, and made being viewed as a foreign current profoundly hazardous for movements, political groups and individuals alike" said Vish Sakthivel, Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Program. According to Sakthivel, Algerians view the notion of a meddling foreign hand with a collective and institutionalised anguish. Allegations of influence under a foreign hand whether Saudi Arabia and Egypt in decades past or Qatar and Iran have been weaponised against Islamists in Algeria. Commenting on Algeria's largest Islamist party, Sakthivel explained that "to avert suspicions of extra-nationalist loyalty, the MSP often oscillates between emphasising and downplaying its ties to the transnational Muslim Brotherhood, as well as broader discourses on the 'global umma.'"
"Algeria is One Hundred Percent Muslim"
Senior Harakat Al-Bina' Al-Watani officials were keen to press on me the importance of the evolution that their party had undergone and the progress they had made. One of the party's founders, Ahmed Al-Daan, agreed with the view that Bengrina is a populist, but not in the way we know populist leaders to be in other parts of the world. His argument is that Algeria is not just a Muslim majority country; it is "one hundred per cent Muslim." The difference between the two is significant, according to Al-Daan as, unlike Muslims states with large non-Muslim minorities, Algeria is "hundred per cent Muslim" and, therefore, the argument goes, a genuine leader representing the popular will cannot be anything but a Muslim populist.
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Al-Daan continued stressing that it was impossible to separate Islam and nation within the context of Algeria. The bond between the three – Islam, nation and Algerians – was sealed during the long anti-colonial movement. This view of Algeria was powerfully illustrated to us during our pre-arranged trip to the Army Museum. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by the magnificent and imposing figure of Algeria's most revered leader, Emir Abdelkader. As well as being a major religious figure, he was also a military leader who led the struggle against the French colonial invasion of Algiers. For secular and religious Algerians, the spirit of their nation is embodied in Abdelkader, who epitomised religious virtue and Algeria's struggle for freedom from French colonial rule.
Populism within the Algerian context is not the same as populism in the US, Al-Daan insisted. I had some sympathy for the argument as there is a danger to populism in countries with large minorities, which does not necessarily exist in a homogenous state like Algeria. Like many others in the party I spoke to, Al-Daan stressed the idea of service. "Service to the people, service to the country and service to Islam" was one and the same thing in the eyes of Harakat Al-Bina' Al-Watani loyalists.
A Country Like No Other?
Perhaps Algeria – a country whose history and struggle against colonialism is unlike any other – is a unique case, and our model and categories, including Islamist, secularist and populists, are unsuited for understanding the politics and history of the country. There was a confidence in NCM members in that they did not feel the need to assert the "Islamicness" of their party. It is a given, they would say. What mattered more than anything was giving voice and expression to the people of Algeria and the spirit of their nation. Democracy, they argued, if done properly and is allowed to reflect the will of the people, would preserve the values of Islam in a country that is "One hundred per cent Muslim."
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Perhaps Harakat Al-Bina' Al-Watani has found a formula for overcoming the false choice between Islamism and authoritarianism that has plagued the Middle East. Or, maybe, in their embrace of nationalism and their seemingly absolute loyalty to the state, Algerians' second largest Islamist party is playing a dangerous game. In the second chapter of the series, I will look to answer those questions.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.