ALGIERS A prominent Muslim cleric in Algeria has issued a religious decree saying God will punish anyone who does not vote in a May 10 parliamentary election, a warning aimed at the large numbers planning to abstain from a vote they view as irrelevant.
Algeria's authorities, under pressure to reform after last year's "Arab Spring" revolts in neighbouring countries, say the vote will be more free and transparent than ever before. This though is met with scepticism by many ordinary Algerians.
Sheikh Chemseddine Bouroubi, a well-known imam who follows a mainstream Algerian school of Islam, said people should vote to prevent foreign powers - who he said included Zionists - from fomenting a violent revolution in Algeria.
"Algerians must vote because it is about Algeria's stability, and it is about preserving our country from any foreign interference," the imam told Reuters on Wednesday in a telephone interview.
"Allah will punish those who do not vote... Voting is a religious obligation," said the cleric, who runs a charity organisation in the capital Algiers.
The cleric said the fatwa was his own initiative and he denied any ties to the authorities. But his message chimes with that of the government, which is worried about a low turnout on May 10 and has been urging people to vote.
Algeria's leaders say they are carrying out a gradual, managed transition towards democracy, as an alternative to the violent revolutions which have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen over the past 14 months.
The imam pointed to French celebrity-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who played a role in persuading Paris to help overthrow Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year. Levy was born in Algeria when it was a French colony.
"We must do our best to prevent foreign interference in our domestic affairs. Listen to what the Zionist Bernard-Henri Levy is saying: 'Algeria is about to experience an Arab spring very soon.' This is what he said ten days ago in France."
"What he means by 'Arab Spring' is a repetition of the Libyan scenario: blood, killings, destruction," the cleric said.
Most Algerians say they fear the sort of turmoil seen in neighbouring countries because Algeria is still emerging from a conflict between Islamist militants and the security forces which killed an estimated 200,000 people.
"We have just turned the page of violence. Are we going to go back to killings, blood, insecurity, fear?" said the cleric.
While there is little sign of any groundswell of support among Algerians for overthrowing their rulers, neither is there much enthusiasm for the election.
Many people say the same familiar faces are running for office, that parliament does not have the power to implement reforms, and that the authorities are not prepared to loosen their tight grip on power.
Opinion polls are unreliable, but analysts predict that turnout could be around 35 percent, the record low in the last parliamentary election in 2007.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)