WORLD

Islam’s broadening sweep

A new regime cancels elections

ANDREW BILSKI January 27 1992
WORLD

Islam’s broadening sweep

A new regime cancels elections

ANDREW BILSKI January 27 1992

Islam’s broadening sweep

WORLD

ALGERIA

A new regime cancels elections

It was a time when Algeria, a one-party Marxist state since it won its independence from France in 1962, prepared to become a democracy. Instead, tanks and troops roamed the streets of the capital, Algiers, in a menacing show of force following what some Western diplomats characterized as a coup. Moslem fundamentalists, who had been on the verge of winning the North African country’s first free parliamentary elections on Jan. 16, denounced the new regime as unconstitutional. And in what amounted to a call to arms, officials of their political party, the Islamic Salvation Front, declared: “It is essential to prepare for all eventualities to save the country, its sovereignty and its inhabitants.” As a result, some analysts predicted that the new regime would declare a state of emergency, allowing it to suspend the constitution. Although the thwarted fundamentalists later toned down their rhetoric, the potential for violence hung over the desert nation of 26 million like the cruel Saharan sun.

The crisis followed the resignation of President Chadli Benjedid on Jan. 11, five days before the Islamic Salvation Front, better known by its French acronym, FIS, was poised to take control of parliament. In first-round voting in December, the FIS had captured 188 seats in the 430-seat National People’s Assembly, needing only 28 more in last week’s planned second round to win a majority. The FIS has vowed to transform Algeria into an Islamic state, calling for a ban on alcohol, for segregation of the sexes and for “protecting the family”—a euphemism for denying jobs to women. The party’s imminent victory raised the prospect—widely feared by secular leaders in the region—of fundamentalism gaining strength in neighboring countries.

The situation proved unacceptable to the country’s secular power elite. Analysts maintain that the military, angry with Benjedid for legalizing opposition parties in 1989, forced him to resign. The High Security Council, made up of cabinet ministers and military officers, assumed power and promptly cancelled the second-round elections. Then, the council set up a collective presidency with a mandate to govern until the end of 1993.

As tensions increased throughout the week, FIS acting leader Abdelkader Hachani sought to avoid bloodshed. He appealed to the army not to act as what he called a “strike force for the junta of power.” And carefully choosing language to appeal to Western leaders, who remained conspicuously silent about the Algerian political upheaval, Hachani pledged to pursue the struggle for an Islamic state “with wisdom and political legality.” Still, the prospect of Algeria governed by Moslem fundamentalists clearly worries secular Arab neighbors and Western leaders alike.

Many government officials expressed concern that an Islamic regime would try to export its religious revolution, as Iran tried to do under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Said Robert Satloff, an expert on Algeria with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “An Islamic state in Algeria will threaten all of the status quo regimes in the region.” He added: “It will lend strength to the opposition forces in Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and, to a certain extent, Egypt.”

In the battle for support, Algeria’s new regime tried to make the leadership as broadly based as possible. The nominal leader of the five-man collective presidency, known as the High State Council, is 72-year-old Mohammed Boudiaf, a hero of the 1954-1962 war in which the colony of Algeria gained independence from France. He had been in exile since 1964, when President Ahmed Ben Bella sentenced him to death for political activities. The leadership also includes Defence Minister Khaled Nezzar, 54, who some diplomats claim is the main power in the new regime; Human Rights Minister Ali Haroun; Ali Kafi, 64, chief of the Veterans’ National Organization; and Tedjini Haddam, the Algerian head of a Paris mosque. Said one Western diplomat in Algiers, who spoke on condition of anonymity: “Boudiaf is a sop to the revolution, Haroun to the West, Kafi to the values of the old leadership, and Haddam is the soft face of Islam, which is totally unacceptable to the FIS.”

The upheavals not only thwarted the FIS, but also ended the nearly 30-year reign of Benjedid’s socialist National Liberation Front (FLN). The FLN’s rule began to weaken in 1988, when high unemployment among Algeria’s youth led to countrywide riots. Benjedid used the army to put down the uprising, in which at least 159 people died. At the same time, he pledged to introduce sweeping economic and political reforms.

Analysts say that those riots were directed against the system, not Benjedid. In December, 1988, he was re-elected—unchallenged—for a third term, with 81 per cent of the vote. Benjedid swiftly changed the power structure, making government answerable to parliament instead of the FLN. In February,

1989, a new constitution, approved by 73 per cent in a referendum, dropped the state’s commitment to socialism and allowed the formation of rival political parties.

In June, 1990, Islamic fundamentalists captured more than half of Algeria’s municipalities in nationwide elections. Encouraged by the results, the newly legalized FIS announced its plans to challenge the government in 1991 parliamentary elections. But in June, after fundamentalists’ protests against what they claimed were biased election rules exploded into new riots, Benjedid postponed the vote— and declared a state of emergency. In December, when Algerians finally went to the polls, Benjedid’s stated hope of fostering a secular, liberal democracy appeared doomed. His FLN won only 15 seats in first-round voting on Dec. 26, and it was prepared to concede defeat to the Moslem fundamentalists last week.

Despite Benjedid’s reforms, some Western analysts say that Algerians had lost confidence in the FLN. They cite rampant unemployment—about 30 per cent of the workforce is idle—and shortages of consumer goods. Algeria’s standard of living slipped sharply as a result of the 1985 drop in world oil prices: current petroleum revenues of about $13 billion are down two-thirds since the oil boom of the 1970s, and most other earnings now service the $25-billion foreign debt.

The FIS appealed most directly to disenchanted Algerians, nearly 75 per cent of whom are under 30 and perennially underemployed. Said Shireen Hunter, deputy director of Middle East Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies: “The front is popular in Algeria because the benefits of modernization and economic development have not been shared equally.” She added: “These people feel that they must try something else, and the something else must have roots in their own culture and history.”

For his part, Ian Watson, executive director of the Ottawa-based National Council on Canada-Arab Relations, said that disenchantment is widespread. He added: “There is a huge number of Algerian youths who are totally frustrated with their lives. There is nothing else to turn to.”

Despite offering mild denunciations of Algeria’s retreat from democracy, the secular governments of neighboring Arab states were clearly pleased that the coup took place. At the same time, most Western governments maintained a careful public neutrality in the dispute. After first characterizing the takeover as constitutional, U.S. state department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler later said that “we are not going to take sides.” France, Italy and Spain, the major European countries bordering the Mediterranean that have large Arab populations, were noncommittal. And on a visit to Washington, External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall only commented in response to a reporter’s question. Said McDougall: “We are concerned and hopeful that within the constitution, there can be a peaceful solution and that the democratically elected parties will be able to assume their responsibilities.”

The generally subdued Western reaction underlined a political dilemma. “The West is caught between democracy and Islamic fundamentalism,” said Satloff. What remained unclear at week’s end is whether Algerians voted for the FIS out of a real desire to live in-an Islamic state, or whether they wanted to send a powerful signal of their discontent to the ruling class. But clearly, Western countries met the death of democracy in Algeria with barely disguised relief.

ANDREW BILSKI with WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington, GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa and correspondents’ reports

ANDREW BILSKI

WILLIAM LOWTHER

GLEN ALLEN