Algerian Trauma

July 01, 1992

President Mohammed Boudiaf, assassinated on Monday, was Algeria's best hope of evolution to democracy. Now the conflict between secular militarists and Muslim fundamentalists is renewed.

President Boudiaf was a figurehead for a chastened military regime. He had been in exile for 27 years when invited back in January to head the High State Committee. He was part of the revolution that brought independence from France 30 years ago. But he was untainted by the corruption and tyranny of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) since then. He was 73, and equally opposed to fundamentalism and corruption.

The assassination of Mr. Boudiaf in a hail of gunfire before an audience in the eastern town of Annaba left many questions. It came as the treason trial against seven leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was resuming. Throughout the French-speaking Islamic world, some clergymen cheered. The FIS won the first round of an election last Christmas and deserved to form a government when the army instead threw out the Marxist-military president, Chadli Benjedid, canceled the run-off election and jailed 10,000 FIS supporters.

Others beside the FIS had motives. FLN office-holders had been pushed aside in the January coup. President Boudiaf showed signs of authentic political ambition. With FIS sympathizers routinely taking potshots at soldiers and police, someone else could sneak in. Whoever it was, the remaining members of the ruling committee are in charge. Defense Minister Khaled Nezzar is key among them and may emerge as the regime's strong man.

Algeria is run for the benefit of its army. The people are disgusted with the economy and corruption. That's why they voted for the FIS. The country lives on oil and gas exports, and suffers from their recent fall in price. Investment and aid from the European Community are held back by fear of instability and the Marxist heritage of the regime. The one thing worse than the Muslim fundamentalists who fairly won the nation's only free election is the military repression that holds them down. The army and President Benjedid responded to rioting in 1988 with the democratic constitution of 1989. Now if only the junta would abide by it.

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