Algeria's Death Rattle?

November 27, 1994

The promise of a presidential election next year made by the military front man, President Liamine Zeroual, will not bring peace to Algeria. In the short run, nothing will. Blundering by the military Socialist regime in power since 1962 has brought about a civil war such as threatens many Islamic countries, between modernism camouflaged as moderation and extremism disguised as fundamentalism, between ethnic majorities and minorities, between male clerical authority and women.

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), suppressed in 1992 and in rebellion since, is not fighting only the government, which it is likely to destroy. It is killing unveiled women. It is assassinating leading figures of the Berber people, whose interpretation of Islam is more tolerant than the FIS allows and whose women never wear the veil.

None of this had to be. It was a more broadly based and moderate FIS that won the first round of parliamentary elections at the end of 1991 and was outlawed at the start of 1992, before it could triumph in the second round and form a government. The army then could have remained a guardian of democracy and seen to it that the FIS did not become the new dictatorship but would abide by subsequent elections.

It was never clear in 1991 whether the popularity of the FIS was a mandate for theocracy or merely a repudiation of the economic failure of three decades of secular, socialist, military dictatorship. The crackdown allowed no chance to find out.

Transformed into a guerrilla movement, the FIS has lost its broad base, toleration and moderation. The rebellion it started has taken a toll that is now officially put at 10,000 lives but is thought by many to be double that.

The great threat to Algeria, in the eyes of some well-placed observers, is not a religious dictatorship on an Iranian model so much as national disintegration. The FIS may slap a theocratic tyranny on Algiers and parts of the desert. It will never do so on Berber strongholds in the northern mountains. Berbers, descended from the North Africans who preceded the Arab conquest, are one-fourth of the population, perhaps more.

Much of the oil and gas supply of France and Italy is at stake in this struggle. Algeria, with some 26 million people, is too big and developed for France to manipulate as it has some former colonies in Africa. Algeria's government is going to have to come to terms with the FIS in ways that allow a parliamentary system to balance the political and cultural differences among Algeria's people. At the moment, the civil war is about which of two narrow-based dictatorships should prevail. Neither could end such a war.

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