Algeria on the Brink

January 26, 1994

The military junta that rules Algeria has virtually lost its grip since canceling the election results two years ago that would have put the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in charge of government. The FIS has changed from a legal opposition to a terrorist army that controls more and more of the country by night. Foreigners have been targeted and are fleeing. The generals live in guarded compounds.

All this was to have been changed by a national conference that opened near Algiers yesterday. It is intended to replace the ruling five-member Committee of State with an interim president on Monday. His brief would be to prepare for elections in three years' time. In other words, it is a smoke- screen for rule by the class that has governed Algeria since independence: militarist, secularist, Europeanized, Socialist, privileged and few.

Five of Algeria's six largest political parties boycotted the conference, though many nonpolitical organizations did dutifully send delegates. The regime said desperately as the conference opened that it accepted the principle of dialogue with the banned FIS, which it refers to only as "the Islamic sensibility."

About two thousand persons have died in the assassinations and reprisals by death squads of the past two years. The FIS is a more fanatical, less democratic organization than when it won the election. Despite oil and gas exports, the economy is suffering because violence has destroyed tourism and the European recession has dried up remittances by Algerian workers.

The fundamentalist movement in Algeria is frightening to the founding generation of secular leftists, to the private sector and to neighboring regimes in Tunisia and Morocco. But it is indigenously Algerian and its success is based on the economic failure of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) which has misruled since 1962.

What the army should have done was to honor the elections and bring the FIS to power in a framework that could unseat it at subsequent elections. It may be too late, but if the conference could heal the country, that is what it must do.


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