A troubled Algeria

October 11, 1994|By Francis Ghiles

London -- POLITICAL violence has taken 28,000 lives in Algeria in less than two years, and now moderates on both sides are seeking a way out of the impasse that began when the military canceled elections that Islamic fundamentalists were certain to win in 1992.

Jn both sides there are intransigent foes of any accommodation.

But while negotiations between the military-civilian government and the fundamentalists might increase violence in the short term, the alternative to talks is an endless spiral of murder and destruction. In part, this would be spawned by radical fundamentalists, who are more anti-Western than the mainstream fundamentalists.

Beyond that, there are real risks that the army will split, that oil and gas installations -- the underpinning of the economy -- will be attacked and that the country will split into a patchwork of feuding regions.

The president, Liamine Zeroual, does not have an easy task. The senior officer corps is split between conciliators, like the former head of the navy, Gen. Rashid Ben Yelles, and the so-called eradicators, led by the chief of staff, Gen. Mohamed Lamari.

Some supporters of Liamine Zeroual, who advocates a measure of power sharing, ideologically oppose an Islamic state; others are desperate to preserve the considerable privileges that the command economy and membership in a feared elite has handed them for a generation.

But many young officers are also disgusted at the sheer incompetence and corruption of many of their elders and deeply ashamed that their country has been brought to the edge of an abyss.

Last week, the government moved Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj, leaders of the banned Islamic Salvation Front, the principal opposition party, from prison to house arrest.

The move reflects Liamine Zeroual's conclusion that eradication of the fundamentalist movement is impossible. But it is unlikely to stop the violence and anarchy.

The front's leaders are being pushed to the negotiating table by a growing fear that their organization is losing the initiative and that events are moving out of their control.

Armed bands proliferate, some owing allegiance to the rabidly anti-Western Armed Islamic Group, many operating locally under the leadership of self-proclaimed imams who are ostensibly fighting to establish an Islamic state but are basically racketeers.

The public's suspicion of the national authorities -- often referred to as "Hukkumat Mikky," or Mickey Mouse government -- is so great that broad swaths of the countryside and major cities have been turned into areas in which these gangs can operate.

All parties to the conflict have increased their savagery in the past 21 months. The radical fundamentalists first zeroed in on the security forces, then leading intellectuals and doctors, then foreigners, 61 of whom have been murdered over the past year.

Ordinary citizens have borne the brunt. Young girls who refuse ++ to put on the veil have been killed, and some women have been beheaded, but it is not clear why.

The security forces have also resorted to systematic torture. In recent months, they have set fire to forests to flush out Islamic bands and exacted retribution on ordinary Algerians, often killing innocent people who happened to live near where one of their own had been ambushed.

The hard-line Armed Islamic Group has threatened a fate of fire and brimstone against Islamic Salvation Front leaders who sit down at Liamine Zeroual's table.

In recent months, it has burned down more than 300 schools in an attempt, so far unsuccessful, to stop students from attending the schools of an "impious state." The Armed Islamic Group's leader, Cherif Gousmi, was killed Oct. 3 in a gun battle with security forces.

Abassi Madani has said the front's leaders would respect the democratic principle of political parties' alternation in power, but Ali Benhadj has never made any secret of his belief that a front victory at the polls would express Allah's will and therefore was not something the party could possibly compromise on.

On the important economic front, Mr. Zeroual has signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and, with part of Algeria's foreign debt rescheduled, has launched economic reform.

But unless there is civil peace and the more notoriously corrupt generals and senior officials are removed, reform is unlikely to get very far.

For its part, the Islamic Salvation Front has never provided a detailed program for reforming a command economy. But its spokesman in Europe, Rabah Kebir, has said the party would call into question all contracts signed since January 1992.

Such a measure would cause chaos, notably among oil and gas companies, whose voice carries weight if only because Algeria derives more than 90 percent of its foreign income from exporting energy.

A major export project -- a gas pipeline to Morocco and Spain -- could be held up, as could much new exploration activity.

Three years ago, the Islamic Salvation Front made a major political mistake when it threatened retribution against senior military officers if it ever came to power.

Since January 1992, the generals have behaved as if wiping the front off the map were a realistic possibility.

Unless each side can agree that wiping the other one out will bring no stability to Algeria, the future will be grim.

Francis Ghiles is the North Africa correspondent of The Financial Times.

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