Ali Belhadj is a hardline advocate of political Islam with a history of inspiring protests in Algeria, and he is a vocal opponent of the legislative elections.
In 1988, Belhadj became a leader of the street protests that forced the Algerian regime to introduce democratic reforms for the first time.
He then became the vice-president of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a party advocating an Islamic form of government which quickly won over disenfranchised Algerians hungry for change.
The military staged a coup d’état on the eve of almost certain victory for the party.
The FIS has been illegal ever since, but in recent months, Belhadj has once again been rallying supporters in mosques across the country against Algeria’s May 10 legislative elections.
Al Jazeera spoke to him in a phone interview about why he is calling for a boycott of Thursday’s elections, his views on the Islamist parties that work with the government, and whether the FIS is still relevant.
Q: What is your stance on the election boycott?
A: We are calling for a boycott of the elections. The Algerian regime has denied those calling for a boycott the right to political activities. They were denied access to the media outlets and all other means of communicating their opinions and pointing out the political justifications for the boycott.
This is why the only people able to remain active are the participants taking part in the elections, who were given complete freedom for action.
Q: What is the mood amongst the Algerian people?
A: A huge amount of money has been spent on doing whatever it takes to coax people into taking part in the elections by any means.
The majority of the Algerian people, however, are desperate, and view these elections as an absurdity for which public funds are being squandered. Public frustration surges when election time comes, since Algerians will get neither heavenly nor worldly gains from them.
The Algerian regime is sticking to the timetable for the elections despite the boycott by politicians and people ousted by the regime. Advocating the boycott does not necessarily mean calling for foreign intervention, chaos, and a return to the years of bloodshed, as the regime falsely alleges.
Those of us boycotting the elections are calling for establishing a transitional period in which power would be transferred in a smooth manner, to another generation via an election process. A national unity government would initially be formed, followed by a constituent council which would be formed for drafting a new constitution for the country. General elections would then follow, beginning with the municipalities, the regional, then legislative and presidential elections.
By adopting this calm and peaceful plan, the country would be able to resolve the crisis that has plagued the Algerian people for so long.
Q: You have been travelling the countryside speaking to the Algerian people, in recent months. Have you been able to do this freely?
A: When we went there, we were monitored by security elements, either openly and directly, or covertly. We do not pay heed to such actions, as we expressed our political opinions, even if we were arrested after our political tours. We have faced some restrictions and arrests, but that would not deter us from expressing our political views about what we view as the solution for resolving the country’s crisis.
Of course, most of the people we encountered [during the past few months of travels] complained that the regime is always absent whenever people are in dire need. This is true to municipalities, the regional government and the presidency of the republic.
Q: What is your view of the Islamist parties competing in the elections in the Green Alliance? Would they be able to change Algeria, if they win the majority? Could the FIS work with them?
A: Islamic parties in Algeria are different to their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries. This is because Islamic parties in Algeria have allied themselves to the regime and have become part of it. They have defended regime policies, and had practically merged themselves with the president’s political programme, becoming an inseparable part of the regime.
Though we hope the Islamic parties will win the elections, we have to remain objective enough to be honest: that Islamic parties in Algeria have supported the regime, have become part of it and defended its cause. So however many votes these parties win in the elections, they will not win the majority of votes. They may only win a number of seats that would not change anything in the regime.
We do not oppose these parties, or any other parties. What we oppose is the Algerian regime in the first place.
Thus, change would only come after changing the regime, opening the political arena for all parties in an objective and real manner.
Then, the Algerian people would elect rulers who would serve their national interests.
Q: There was a video published online that shows you condemning French President Nicolas Sarkozy over the burial of Mohammed Merah in France. What do you think about Merah’s actions?
A: The man was killed, most probably after orders were issued to kill him. Since Merah did not stand trial, we cannot judge whether he was guilty or not. This case has vanished with the man, or will remain stored in the archives of the French security authorities, and the political authority there.
We cannot denounce someone whom justice did not convict and was unable to defend himself. What we are criticising is the fact that the French authorities could have captured him, particularly that he was alone. There are lawyers in Algeria and France who have sympathised with Merah and were planning to file a case against French security authorities prior to launching an investigation into Merah’s death.
With regard to Sarkozy, I am not interested in France’s internal affairs, except for the fact that we do not want France to interfere in our internal affairs.
Q: Do you think there is still widespread support for the FIS, given the trauma of the decade of violence in the 1990s?
A: If another Algerian party faced what the Islamic Salvation Front has faced, including marginalisation, kidnappings and the expulsion of thousands of members, it would have been wiped out. The FIS will neither praise nor criticise itself.
We want to be given official recognition for exercising peaceful political activity. Then we need to have an elections timetable that would reveal if the FIS still had widespread grassroots support, or whether it had lost its support and became weaker.
Q: Some of your supporters have been claiming you should be made president. What is your reaction to this?
A: The Algerian people are not represented by those who have been forcibly gathered in government halls. Algerians are more honest than those who keep applauding and chanting for the ruling party.
We have been ruled for 50 years without any real achievements in the fields of politics, the economy, fine arts, or in the intellectual domain.
This is why we have the right to aspire to the presidency, not through secret deals, but through popular struggle. Since ruling a country is based on a political process, as opposed to personal ambitions, feuding factions and army generals, it would be the people who would take us to the presidency.
Q: What political system do you believe would be best for Algeria?
A: The parliamentary system is the most suitable to Algeria, even though it has some negative aspects, because the presidential systems in the Arab world have turned into dictatorships.
We are not picking the parliamentary system, with its flaws, but we would rather make our choices through a national comprehensive dialogue where debate would take place at a constituent authority for drafting a new constitution, with the majority having the upper hand.
Q: Do you think the governments in Tunisia, Libya and Morocco are on the right track? What should they do differently?
A: We cannot tell them what they should do, since they are more qualified than us to manage their affairs. They are free to do what they choose. But I would note that for observers following the political situation [in these countries], it is clear that it is unlikely that there will be political stability in these countries anytime soon.
It will take years rather than months to address their difficulties, since something that was corrupted over 100 years cannot be rectified in hours.
This is why it is important to give these events adequate time to evolve, bearing in mind the examples of revolutions in France and the United States and how long it took them to achieve political stability.
Such revolutions can only bear fruit after many years, during which remnants of the toppled regimes will keep working in the dark to undermine political reforms and incite divisions among the people. They may fanaticise about setting back revolutionary reforms for a return to the defunct dictatorial regimes. But the freedom of the people is priceless.
— This interview was translated from Arabic by Ahmed Mohamad Al Goni
You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan