The funeral of exiled Islamist leader Abbassi Madani on Saturday reflected the uncertainties of Algeria’s political turmoil.
Rabat – Thousands gathered in the streets of Algiers’ Belcourt quarter on Saturday, chanting and singing, some draped in the bright hues of the Algerian flag. Such crowds are a familiar sight for Algeria, which has been rocked by anti-government protests since February, but Saturday’s march was not a demonstration but a funeral procession—that of Abbassi Madani, an exiled Islamist leader who died in Qatar on April 24. He was 88 years of age.
Abbassi Madani founded the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) political party, which in 1991 seemed poised to come to power in Algeria. Instead, the military dismantled the organization, incarcerating Madani and other leaders and hurtling the nation into a decade-long civil war.
Both hailed as a champion of traditional Algerian values and decried as the instigator of a bloody conflict, Madani has long been a divisive figure for Algerians. But such public emotion at his funeral aired questions about the place of Islamism in the uncertainty of a post-Bouteflika Algeria.
A unifying leader
Madani was born in 1931 in Sidi Okba, a small municipality in northwestern Algeria where Okba ibn Nafi, the leader of the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, is buried. Madani’s father, an imam, initially enrolled him in a religious school. He later got a French education.
For an opposition leader, Madani was full of contradictions. He was a staunch Islamist but also Western-educated, obtaining a doctorate from the University of London in 1980. He was a revolutionary and veteran of the 1954 Algerian War but later a professor at the University of Algiers.
And though he had once been a National Liberation Front (FLN) loyalist and a childhood friend of revolutionary leader Larbi Ben M’hidi, by the 1980s, he was set against the FLN’s one-party rule.
“We entered an era of despair, failure, and disaster [after the FLN came to power],” Madani said in a 1990 interview. “The Algerian state of 1962 had nothing to do with what had been conceived on the first of November 1954, for which we had taken up arms: An independent state founded on Islamic principles.”
For years, Madani petitioned Houari Boumediene’s government to adopt Islamic law, creating, in 1963, the Islamic group Al-Qiyam, the forerunner of the FIS. For years, its calls saw few results. But in 1982, Madani led an Islamist demonstration on the campus of the University of Algiers that amassed thousands. Though he was arrested, it was a critical sign of change. Islamism was gaining momentum in Algeria.
The preacher and the veteran
Madani, a war veteran, a respected professor, and an unwavering moderate, had by the late 1980s the respect of Algeria’s moderate Islamists—the pious business classes and older generations. But Islamism in Algeria at the time was fractured and diverse. He could not unify its more radical elements on his own.
In 1989, months after Algeria changed its Constitution to allow multiple political parties to operate, Madani founded the FIS, with Ali Benhadj as his deputy. Benhadj, a charismatic mosque preacher, was far younger than Madani, who was by then in his late 50s. Benhadj gave fiery speeches that appealed to Algeria’s restless youth and lower classes.
Under their leadership, the FIS brought together separate Islamist groups in an unsteady alliance. Though its platforms and projects were at times contradicting and vague, in a matter of months the party had become spectacularly popular. In 1990, the FIS won Algeria’s local elections—the first free elections since independence. It seemed certain the group would unseat the FLN in the 1992 parliamentary race.
But the FIS never gained power. The military, surprised and distressed by the swift success of Islamist parties, launched a coup on January 11, 1992, bringing Mohammed Boudiaf to power and toppling the FIS. Madani and Belhadj were imprisoned. The Algerian civil war had begun.
An uncertain mourning
Madani had lived in exile in Qatar since 2003, and died in Doha after a long illness, the Algerian Press Service said. Despite initial doubts that Madani would be buried in Algeria, the burial went forward.
On the day of Madani’s death, Morocco’s Head of Government Saad Eddine El Othmani shared his condolences with Madani’s family in a statement on behalf of the Justice and Development Party (PJD).
“[Madani] marked the Algerian nationalist movement against French colonization, his significant participation in the development of independent Algeria, and his participation in promoting reconciliation between the brotherly peoples of Morocco and Algeria,” El Othmani wrote. He continued to say that he felt a “deep sorrow” at Madani’s death.
Not all were sure of how to mourn the Islamist figure. Oppositionists on Twitter called him an “extremist” and an “enemy to the nation.”
But sorrow was visible at Madani’s funeral procession in Algiers and echoed across social media channels on Saturday. For 17 hours, crowds prayed and paid their respects on Mohamed Belouizdad Avenue in Algiers.
“[The] funeral will be a barometric gauge for the ongoing Hirak and the Islamists’ role in the power struggle equation,” predicted political analyst Abdennour Toumi on April 26.
And for many Algerians, both the mourners and those opposed, the crowd at Madani’s funeral was indeed a reminder of the lingering strength and solidarity of Algerian Islamists.
In 1990, the Arabic language publication Qadaya Dawliyah interviewed Madani at the height of the FIS’s power, asking if the FIS would call for protests if the regime blocked the party in the elections. Madani answered no. Thirty years later, as Algeria’s protests entered their 10th week, Madani’s words seemed to echo their calls.
“It is rather the regime that will take to the streets now,” he said in 1990. “The Algerian regime is not like other regimes. It is the child of Algeria and must listen to Algeria. If it does not listen to it and does not take to the streets, who is it then?”