Algeria protesters at crossroads as Islamists take spotlight

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FILE - In this March 12, 2021 file photo, demonstrators watch a crowd marching in Algiers. Two years after it ousted Algerias long-serving leader, the countrys pro-democracy movement is at a crossroads. There are fears its been infiltrated by a group with links to an Islamist party outlawed during a dark era of strife in the 1990s. (AP Photo/Toufik Doudou, File)

ALGIERS – Algeria's pro-democracy movement is at a crossroads two years after it ousted the country's long-serving leader, confronting fears it's been infiltrated by a group with links to an Islamist party outlawed during a dark era of strife in the 1990s.

Members of the Europe-based Rachad group cannot be clearly identified, nor do they advertise their presence. But it's widely believed that they are among the thousands of protesters of the Hirak movement marching each Friday. Algeria's president and its powerful military have castigated Rachad, without naming it.

The Hirak movement forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office in 2019 with its giant weekly protests peacefully demanding change in Algeria's opaque power structure in which the army plays a crucial shadow role. Protesters began pouring anew into the streets of Algiers, the capital, and other cities starting on Hirak’s second anniversary, Feb. 22, after a year of virus lockdown.

But they're now less numerous amid concerns that Rachad may be using Hirak's “smile revolution” for an agenda of its own. Debate about Rachad focuses on whether it could reopen the door to the dark past when Algeria waged a murderous war with Islamist extremists seeking power. An estimated 200,000 people were killed, and the nation has yet to heal.

On its site, Rachad says it has taken part in Hirak marches since their inception in early 2019, and affirms that it “banishes all forms of extremism ... and advocates non-violence.”

Such claims don’t convince Ahcene Khaznadji, a 65-year-old teachers’ unionist who took part in about 30 Hirak marches — and says he won’t do it again.

The marches “have reached their limit,” he said. “Above all, it increasingly appears that Islamists are trying to take over, via Rachad. I fought Islamists when in university in the 1980s and, politically, in the 1990s,” Khaznadji said. “Today, I don’t want to serve as a stepping stone to help them reach power.”

Rachad, whose origins date to 2007, is widely seen as Islamic-conservative. Two of its leaders, based in Geneva and London, were members of the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, party whose soaring popularity triggered the years of chaos. On the verge of winning national elections in 1991, FIS was outlawed, a military junta took over Algeria and the insurgency by extremists spiraled into all-out war.