While tens of thousands of Algerians have been gathering for four months in the capital to demand sweeping political reforms، former fighters who led the last confrontation with the establishment have been warning people not to rock the boat، according to Reuters.
In the 1990s، they drove an uprising against the military after it canceled a landmark multiparty election that Islamists were poised to win. This time they say protests could bring a repeat of the chaos and bloodshed their actions unleashed.
“I deeply regret what happened in the 1990s،” once such fighter، Sheikh Yahya، said at his home in Haizer، a village in the Kabyle mountains 120 km (75 miles) east of the capital Algiers where he now works as a butcher.
“This is why I will never participate in any action that might end up violent.”
Some 200،000 people died in Algeria’s decade-long civil war، leaving many Algerians fearful of radical change now that longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has given into the pressure from the streets and stepped down.
Following Bouteflika’s departure in April، the protesters have been pressing for the exit of the entire elite in control since the North African country’s independence from France in 1962 - the same cause the jihadists took up arms for in 1991.
But Yahya and other former jihadists now support the army and other security forces، the strongest part of that elite. It also includes business tycoons and former independence fighters in Algeria’s ruling FLN party as well as labor unions in a state-dominated economy sustained by oil and gas production.
The ex-fighters are Salafists، a literalist Sunni school of Islam whose adherents range from the radical jihadists of Islamic State to an overwhelming majority which shies away from politics.
Salafi influence in Algeria is far wider than their numbers - an estimated one in 40 people - would suggest، analysts say. This makes their anti-protest messages a significant counterweight to calls for radical change.
“Algeria has around 18،000 mosques، most of them are under Salafi influence،” said political analyst Mohamed Mouloudi. One Salafi cleric has a website with a million followers.
By contrast leading Sufis، a more inclusive Sunni school that most Algerians belong to، have kept a low profile since the ouster of Bouteflika، their most high-profile member.
Salafists are social conservatives heavily influenced by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis. They reject both political Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood، which led Egypt in a 2012-2013 interlude from military-backed rule، as well as Western influence - from clothing to political systems.
They were part of the reason the 2011 Arab Spring pro-democracy movement bypassed Algeria، after Sheikh Ali Ferkous، a Salafi icon، declared “unrest is forbidden in Islam”، and they continue to argue that stability is paramount.