Hope for democracy in Algeria fades into violence West has an opportunity to press 'le Pouvoir' into some reform


PARIS -- January was the cruelest month in Algeria. Cruel in its violence, including a car-bombing that killed 42 people in central Algiers; cruel in the cynicism of the assassination of Abdelhak Benhamouda, an influential union leader who had wanted to forge a new political party.

And cruel, above all, for the promise of yet more killing that was contained in a ranting speech by the president in which he blamed foreign plots for all of Algeria's woes and vowed to "eradicate" the terrorists.

The Algerian civil war, which pits a ruthless military-backed government against often barbaric Islamic guerrillas, is five years old. It has become part of the background noise of world affairs, rumbling on like Kurdish clashes but rarely registering on the world's consciousness -- that is, its television screens.

The conflict began when an election that was on the verge of bringing political Islam to power was canceled by the military in January 1992; it has rendered Algerian democracy -- and hopes that a stable political center could form -- stillborn.

There is something like a wall around the war, and it is composed of many elements: the secrecy of Algeria's rulers, known simply as "le Pouvoir" or "the Power"; the intractability of a murky conflict; Western diplomatic inertia; and the fact that Algeria's oil and natural gas have kept flowing to U.S. and European companies.

But as the recent violence suggests, the Algerian problem is festering to the point at which it may prove harder to ignore. Its threat, just south of France, is clear: spreading Islamic militancy, a spillover of terrorism, a flood of refugees and the disruption of large oil and natural-gas supplies.

But if this is a moment of crisis, it may also be a moment when the West, whose options seem otherwise limited, could put some pressure on Algeria's leaders to restore a hope of democracy.

Within the next few months, the country is due to hold its first parliamentary elections since the cancellation of the 1992 poll that nearly brought the Islamic Salvation Front to power. When the election was canceled, the party split into armed factions pursuing insurrection and a more moderate wing.

How -- and whether -- new elections are held will test Algeria's direction and the West's readiness to encourage a democratic solution. Breaking a long, and increasingly eerie, silence, French politicians of the left and right called last week for France to act regarding its former colony.

Lionel Jospin, the Socialist leader, said France could no longer provide "blind support" to President Liamine Zeroual's government. And former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing said the Islamic Salvation Front, now banned, should be allowed to participate in the election.

The United States has maintained a determinedly low profile on Algeria since the war began. But tension between America and France over Algeria has been easing. French feelings that the Clinton administration had been too conciliatory toward the Islamic Salvation Front have changed since the arrest late last year of Anwar Haddam, a prominent party member, in America.

So a joint French-U.S. initiative is technically possible, combining French economic leverage over Zeroual (France grants more than $1 billion annually to Algeria in subsidized loans) with the Clinton administration's greater access to the Islamic Salvation Front.

Opening the way for meaningful elections might entail a call on Zeroual to approach all parties, including the Islamic Salvation Front, in order to hammer out certain principles: the rejection of violence, respect for human rights, a commitment to the alternation of power through universal suffrage, a free press and respect for Algeria's Arab and Berber culture.

But huge difficulties remain, all of them illustrated by the events of the last month. Zeroual's speech Jan. 24 -- in which he raged against "criminals, traitors and mercenaries manipulated by external circles" -- was a textbook study in the closed mentality of Algeria's rulers.

The murder last week of Abdelhak Benhamouda was equally ominous. A prominent 55-year-old union leader and a determined opponent of Islamic fundamentalism, Benhamouda had been preparing to form a centrist political party. The efficiency of his killing in central Algiers was widely seen as suggesting that the murder was the work of rival clans within "the Power," rather than of Islamic guerrillas.

Finally, the barbarity of the car-bombings, throat slittings and other killings that have swept Algiers and towns nearby since the Muslim holy month of Ramadan started Jan. 10 have illustrated, once again, the unconscionable methods of the violent factions that have splintered from the Islamic Salvation Front.

It is unclear to what extent the Front itself -- its leaders dead, arrested or abroad -- is still a coherent political force.

Still, the frustrated, largely silenced democratic yearnings of a broad Algerian center exist and could be buttressed by Western diplomacy.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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