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Concerns about FIS Positions on Democracy and Women's Rights

While condemning the coup d'état and the indiscriminate crackdown on the FIS that the current regime has carried out, Middle East Watch and the Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch are highly critical of some of the FIS' positions toward internationally recognized human rights.  These positions, although they have been revealed more through policy statements than a record of governance, reveals an antipathy toward the right of women to equal treatment under the law, and ambivalence toward the right of people to participate democratically in the political process. 

The FIS was founded in early 1989 and became in September of that year the first legalized Islamist opposition party in the Arab world.  The party has made clear its intention to turn Algeria into an Islamic state20 and apply Islamic law, the Shari'a.  Its political program, however, has remained somewhat vague.  Alongside statements by senior leaders that a FIS government would respect civil liberties and tolerate opposition voices, many statements by FIS officials cast doubt on their commitment to upholding the rights of all citizens. 

The FIS can be judged also by its conduct at the local government level since 1990, and by its alleged complicity in acts of intimidation and aggression carried out by Islamists against citizens whose behavior they deem improper.  At this point, Middle East Watch and the Women's Rights Project do not have sufficient data to judge the FIS in these areas.

FIS statements on the party's commitment to the democratic process have been inconsistent and ambiguous.  A prominent party campaign slogan has been "No to the Charter,21 no to the Constitution, yes to the Qur'an and to the Traditions [based on the Prophet Muhammad's sayings]." 

Acting head of the FIS Abdelkader Hachani told his followers on January 17:

We say to you [Algeria's new rulers], Our constitution is the Koran and the Traditions, but we will go down the path of your constitution, not because we believe in it, but because we would give you a pretext [to crack down if we disregarded it.]22

Two weeks earlier, Imam Abdelkader Moghni, a FIS leader and successful candidate in the parliamentary elections, told an audience at as-Sunna mosque:

Islam is light.  Why do you fear it?  It is in democracy that darkness lies.  Those who refuse the light want to create injustice in society.  The Islamic state is not a monster.  It is tolerance.  The Islamic state will make a pearl out of women, not the plaything she is now....Individual liberties will be respected in the general interest, but liberty must not be confused with permissiveness."

FIS's deputy chief, Ali Belhadj, has been more blunt about his impatience with multiparty democracy: "If the Berber activist expresses himself, the communist expresses himself, along with everyone else, then our country will became a battleground of diverse ideologies in contradiction with the hopes of our people."23

At the same time, FIS leaders have attempted repeatedly to reassure Algerians that the election that put the party in power would not be Algeria's last.  Speaking to an Italian newspaper, Abdelkader Hachani presented a vision of a tolerant society:

[I]f an Islamic state were to be established in Algeria, all freedoms would be guaranteed.  Ulterior motives have been unjustly ascribed to the FIS.  It has been condemned even before it has come to power.  The fact that there has been no repression in those places where we won municipal elections last year is disregarded.  Other parties' officials have retained their posts.  They include even women who do not wear the veil....Our line of conduct is aimed at education.  We have a very clear program which we want to achieve through education and persuasion.  Algerian women are Muslims, yet they do not like to wear the veil, because they are victims of the government and the influence exerted by the European media, which instill a fear of the Islamic system in their hearts.  But women enjoy all rights under Islam.  If women worldwide were thoroughly acquainted with Islam and its values, they would reject any other system and embrace ours.

Asked whether the FIS would allow other parties to exist, Hachani replied:

No less than 60 parties have been active here in Algeria in recent years.  But the elections have reduced these to three.  The others can be said to have been disbanded.  In any case, within the framework of our own values and our own civilization, several parties will be allowed to exist.  Politics will be enriched by this.24

Thus, even when presenting the FIS at its most tolerant, Hachani's comments hardly embrace the right of women to choose their lifestyle or an unfettered right of all persons to form political parties and movements.

The record of the FIS in local government since June 1990, when its candidates were elected to govern more than half of Algeria's municipalities, provides little hard evidence that fundamental rights would be trampled upon should the party control the national parliament.  Local governments have implemented such measures as closing bars, banning "decadent" music and the sale of alcohol, enforcing dress codes, restricting sports programs for girls, and segregating schools, beaches and other public places by gender.25   They have met with uneven success in carrying out their agenda, due to the political dynamics in each district and impediments imposed by the national government.  To Middle East Watch's knowledge, however, no gross violations of fundamental rights, such as the wholesale dismissal of women from government jobs, have taken place.

On the rights of women, the FIS attaches a high priority to segregating the sexes in schools and workplaces, and restricting women's sports.  It intends to maintain if not toughen Algeria's family code, which imposes a unilateral duty on a wife "to obey her husband and to accord him his due as head of the family" (Art. 39), and discriminates against women in terms of the right to enter into and dissolve marriage, inheritance, and other matters.

The FIS has called home the "natural" place for women, and has blamed their presence in the workforce for exacerbating Algeria's unemployment problem.  At present, an estimated 350,00026 women work in salaried jobs in a country of 16 million people.  To Middle East Watch's knowledge, the FIS has not presented a plan for removing them from the workforce.

The FIS's conception of the role of women has caused much anxiety in Algeria's women's movement.  The party's success in the first round of elections prompted a call by the prominent Independent Association for the Triumph of Women's Rights on December 30 to stop the FIS in the second round, and a demonstration by several hundred women in Algiers on January 9.  Many women's rights activists welcomed the cancellation of the second round of elections. 

The FIS also has its women supporters.  The heavy turnout of women voters in some districts on December 26, after a law that enabled men to vote by proxy for women relatives was invalidated, is credited with helping to strengthen the showing of the FIS.  There have been women's demonstrations in support of the FIS since the cancellation of the elections.

In advocating the rights of women in a country such as Algeria, in which religiously-based customs are followed by a large segment of the population, Middle East Watch is guided by international human rights covenants that have gained wide acceptance and are binding on all governments.  Prominent among these is the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria has ratified. (Algeria is not a party to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.)  Article 23 of the Covenant requires States Parties to "take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution."  Article 26 requires that "the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground," including gender.

Thus, Middle East Watch opposes the Family Code of Algeria because it codifies clearly discriminatory practices.  Middle East Watch also opposes any state-sponsored discrimination against women in hiring or employment.

Middle East Watch is also concerned by the numerous incidents that have been reported in recent years in which Islamists have attacked or intimidated women because they objected to their style of dress, their holding a particular job, living alone, or going out in public without male escorts.  Women have been surrounded, threatened, cursed, spat upon, and even assaulted in these incidents, which, fortunately, appear to have declined over the past year.

The role of the FIS in these incidents is not clear.  Middle East Watch does not have the data to know how often the perpetrators are members or sympathizers of the FIS, which is one among many Islamist groups in Algeria.  To our knowledge, the FIS leadership has done little to denounce or discourage the assaults on women.

Middle East Watch also deplores the fact that the FIS has not renounced houdoud punishments for certain crimes.  FIS leaders have said they favor making the Shari'a the law of the land, but have been evasive about whether this would include the amputation of the hands of thieves or the stoning of adulterers, punishments that in the view of Middle East Watch violate the prohibition of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  Speaking to a French reporter, Abbasi el-Madani said,

Islamic justice cannot be implemented except in an Islamic state that is able to provide all of its citizens with a decent standard of living.  Before amputating the hand of a thief, educate him first, give him proper housing, a job, and the means of living an honest life.  First the state must be reformed: that's the objective of our movement.27

Even more disturbing than this evasive answer was an exhibition of political posters sponsored by FIS in Algiers in early January.  Among the posters on display were ones that endorsed the application of Islamic houdoud laws of amputation of the hand for theft and stoning for adultery.28

20 Speaking at as-Sunna mosque on January 3, Hachani said that the FIS "will not abandon its plan to build an Islamic state, and its success in the first round of parliamentary elections was a step in this direction, toward the restoration of the Caliphate."  Agence France-Presse, January 3, 1992.

21 A reference to Algeria's national charter.

22 David Hirst, "Algiers Militants Urge Care at the Gates of Victory," The Guardian, January 18, 1992.

23 Jacques de Barrin, "`L'islam dans sa totalité,'" le Monde, January 15, 1992.

24 Interview published in L'Unità of January 20, just before his arrest. As reported in FBIS, January 28, 1992.

25 See Georges Marion, "`Ordre moral' islamique en Algérie," le Monde, July 17, 1990; Gilles Millet, "Relizane, un village à l'heure du FIS," Libération, July 2, 1990.

26 Agence France-Presse, December 21, 1991.

27 Philippe Aziz, "Algérie: le pouvoir en péril," le Point, April 30, 1990.

28 Agence France-Presse, January 7, 1992.

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