Algiers, Asharq Al-Awsat- Ali Belhadj, the deputy leader of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, said on Wednesday he was prepared to use his influence and convince radical Islamist fighters hiding in the mountains to surrender, “if the government or my armed brothers ask me to do so.”
Belhadj was arrested with FIS leader Abbas Madani in 1991 after their party called for a general strike. FIS went on to score a massive victory in parliamentary elections in 1992, but the result was cancelled after the army took over and FIS supporters and sympathizers became the target of severe repression from the state. Radical Islamists responded by taking up arms – and the subsequent years of political violence left more than 100,000 Algerians dead. The two men were released in July 2003 and banned from all political activity.
Belhadj criticized last week’s cabinet reshuffle in Algeria, in which Prime Minister Ahmad Ouyahia was forced to resign and was replaced by Abdelaziz Belkhadem, describing it as “in vain because real change will have to include the political system and not just a change of individuals.”
Asharq Al Awsat met Belhadj in a populous neighborhood in the Algerian capital, in a modest house, rented by his brother Abdul Hamid. In the three-hour long interview, the Islamist leader spoke about radical Islamist groups in the country, the debate about amending the constitution and the appointment of Belkhadem as prime minister.
Sipping tea, Belhadj said he preferred to “discuss and debate ideas instead of eating and drinking.” He expressed his willingness to act as mediator between the government and the Islamist groups as part of “a wider and just political solution to the security crisis after consulting the conditions, guarantees and demands that the armed groups are seeking in order to permanently leave their hideouts.”
“This requires a commitment by the authorities to [bring about] a real political solution that guarantees militants their political and civil rights. This pledge should be documented and announced in the media so that there is no repeat of the situation where fighters surrendered their weapons and are still suffering from political and social depravation,” in reference to the Front’s armed wing which surrendered in return for an amnesty in 2001.
Belhadj revealed he had explained his point of view to the former defense minister Liamine Zeroual when he visited him twice in prison in 1994. “If the authorities had accepted our advice, perhaps we could have solved the crisis then.”
The 49 year-old father of five, commented on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to appoint a new prime minister, “This is futile political [maneuvering]. Real change should involve the political system. Changing one man with another does not alter the deep political crisis [Algeria is currently witnessing].”
Two senior FIS officials in exile, Anwar Haddam and Rabih Kabir, welcomed the appointment of Belkhadem, who was one of the earliest politicians to advocate a national reconciliation in Algeria.
“I differentiate between the person and his political duties. Belkhadem is unable to change anything in light of the lack of fundamental change of the system, more so after the old cabinet ministers retained their posts,” Belhadj said.
Opposed to amending the constitution, Belhadj proposed instead to allow the head of state rule for a “single term lasting seven years.” “The political system should be parliamentarian and the people should have more authority than the president, through elections. [We] should not contend ourselves to referendums, because this method has become a new tool of dictatorship.”