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Out There News

Algeria trapped between democracy and repression

By Paul Eedle 

ALGIERS, Aug 11, Reuter - Six months after cancelling elections to stop Moslem fundamentalists winning, Algeria's leaders look trapped. They cannot decide which is more dangerous: repression or democracy. 

Sabotage and assassinations blamed on Islamic groups are reported almost every day in towns and villages across the country from the fertile Mediterranean coast to the edge of the Sahara desert. Eighty cents in every dollar earned from oil exports go to pay off foreign debts. Families struggle to survive with 20 per cent unemployment and a desperate shortage of housing. 

Every way out of the crisis, though, is risky for the circle of military leaders that diplomats and Algerians say has held real power since independence from France in 1962. "They don't see any way out of power. They are trapped in power," an Arab diplomat said. 

Repression risks chaos. Security forces have the numbers and firepower to limit armed attacks by underground Islamic groups and are making new arrests almost every day. But this is a country where millions of people are desperate for change and mass protests could be much harder to control. Strikes and riots in 1988, in which 176 people were killed, forced the leadership to agree to end the one-party system. Democracy, however, means giving the vote to these people crying for a total break with the past -- many of whom have seen their best hope in the Islamic state promised by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). 

Diplomats say the FIS won an unshakable lead in the first round of Algeria's first free parliamentary election last December because so many people believed only a radical solution could rescue them from the economic disasters and systematic corruption left by three decades of one-party rule. The FIS won 3.2 million votes, 25 per cent of the total electorate and twice as many as its nearest rival. 

Diplomats and informed Algerians say the military leaders could not face a FIS government. They forced President Chadli Benjedid to resign on January 11 and made authorities cancel the second round of elections. A court dissolved the FIS in March and its leaders were sentenced to 12 years' jail in July for conspiring against the state. Some 3,000 FIS supporters remain in desert detention camps. 

The five-person High Council of State (HCE), a collective presidency which replaced Chadli, has taken a tentative step towards dialogue by announcing five conditions for "discussions" with political parties. "The leadership, under the pressure of public opinion, the parties and violence in the streets, cannot refuse dialogue," a senior political figure said privately. 

The HCE's conditions do not irrevocably exclude FIS supporters but one is "unequivocal condemnation of crimes against the state", meaning they must admit their campaign of violent resistance is wrong. The FIS is demanding equally humiliating concessions from the authorities: release of its leaders and resumption of elections. A clandestine FIS leaflet circulated in early August said: "There is still time, we can still hope, Algeria can be saved by freeing the thousands of detainees, releasing our sheikhs (leaders), dressing wounds, mending fractures and giving the people back their right to speak." 

The senior politician said a way had to be found to open dialogue which did not look like one side was surrendering to the other merely by sitting down at the negotiating table. A middle-level government official said he saw no role for the FIS since it had been dissolved and no sense in discussion with its most militant members, some of whom dismissed parliamentary democracy as "blasphemy" during their election campaign. "The hard core, those who want to establish an Islamic state, very frankly I do not know what it is possible to discuss with those people," he said. 

Diplomats and informed Algerians said a crucial factor influencing the leadership was fear of a "settlement of accounts" and investigations into corruption if an Islamic militant government took power. "They run a very high personal risk because they will lose maybe their jobs or much more, all their material goods," one envoy explained. "They are extremely afraid of a FIS government and of influential FIS people opening up certain files." 

The leadership, meanwhile, debates its options. In the country outside, a policeman is shot dead, a factory is forced to close and a troubled people waits for rescue. 

REUTER NEWS SERVICE