Algerian Turmoil

June 08, 1991

The fundamental change across North Africa is that, increasingly rejected in Europe, people are becoming more Arab, Islamic and Middle Eastern, and less distinctively North African and Francophone. Elderly professors are striving to improve their Arabic because their students no longer handle French. Where an older generation looked down on Arabs of the Middle East, younger adults are increasingly pro-PLO, pro-Iraq and involved.

This has played out differently in Morocco, where King Hassan keeps a tight lid; in Tunisia, where President Zine Abidine Ben Ali carts Moslem agitators off to jail; and in Algeria, where President Chadli Benjedid granted free elections, only to suppress the process along with the unrest it inspired.

Independent as a leftist, one-party dictatorship since 1962, and increasingly Stalinist after the 1965 coup, Algeria was shaken by riots in 1988 for higher living standards, open politics and social justice. The unrest discredited the army and the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN). President Chadli allowed opposition parties to operate, leading to startling victories by the Islamic Salvation Front in local elections last June. With parliamentary elections set for this June 27, the Islamic Salvation Front took to the streets in political strikes, paralyzing Algiers, demanding a presidential election as well.

Why would the presumed winner of a parliamentary election do this? One theory was that the fundamentalists' victory last year was an illusory message by the voters to the FLN, but not an endorsement of Islamic rule, and that the Islamic Front was heading to defeat. In any case, 11 days of violence ended Wednesday when President Chadli sent in the tanks, imposed the state of siege, suspended the elections, sacked the FLN government and appointed a new prime minister in search of non-FLN coalition ministers. The Islamic Salvation Front found cause to call off its protest and claims to have a presidential assurance of both parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

With 25 million people, Africa's second biggest land area and a powerful if declining oil industry, Algeria matters. For one year it led the Arab world toward democracy, but now it is just another country where democracy is seen not to work because electoral victors won't tolerate it. The next move is up to the president, with the army at his side.

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