Algeria’s generals risk foiling democracy again at their peril

Algeria’s generals risk foiling democracy again at their peril

This week’s poll threatens the army’s grip, argues David Hirst

The Guardian, April 12, 1999,,309679,00.html

When Algerians go to the polls to pick a new president on Thursday, they will be hoping – yet again – for a real change at the top that will bring an end to their seven-year civil war.

All the leading candidates have called for some sort of dialogue with the mainstream Islamist opposition, which, though outlawed, is still probably the most powerful mass movement in the country.

But such overtures are unlikely to succeed unless the new president achieves what no predecessor has and wrests the powers that the constitution confers on him from the cabal of generals who have long usurped them.

The auguries, though not good, have improved as the election campaign has progressed.

The election was precipitated by what amounts to one crisis within another: the larger ‘national’ crisis – a combination of bloody insurgency and ever-deteriorating living conditions – and a regime crisis, arising from the army’s remorseless, largely surreptitious domination of state institutions. Without a resolution of the lesser crisis, there is scant chance of resolving the larger one.

The crisis repeatedly and typically comes to a head when the president and senior commanders clash – even when, as is the case with the outgoing Lamine Zeroual, he is a soldier they put in the presidential chair.

Not surprisingly, men like Mohammed Lamari, the chief of staff, have come to be known as ‘the decision makers’. They conduct the war against the Islamic ‘terror’.

They, or their dominant faction, are also known as ‘eradicators’ because they believe in a ‘security’ rather than a political solution to the conflict. None of the last four presidents has completed his term. In his push for national reconciliation and a power base of his own, Mr Zeroual collided with General Lamari – so venomously that he more or less accused the army of sponsoring death squads that were carrying out massacres officially ascribed to Islamic ‘terrorists’. He resigned, calling for the election of a successor.

But could any successor break the stranglehold main-tained by the generals since a virtual military coup cancelled parliamentary elections in 1992, depriving the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of certain victory and igniting the war?

The army’s candidate – deny it though it does – is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a grandee of the authoritarian, socialistic one-party era of Houari Boumedienne in the 1960s and 1970s. His call for national reconciliation is less than convincing; critics say he is an ‘eradicator’ at heart.

There is little evidence that he enjoys real popularity. But the army and institutions it manipulates are throwing their weight behind him.

Whether, poll-rigging, that can ensure his victory seems improbable, especially since the election has turned out to be a real contest.

The campaign has gained its own momentum, marking a genuine return of politics in a country whose destiny has for years been virtually hijacked by the struggle between ‘eradicators’ and ‘terrorists’, a struggle of blind violence with no real political meaning.

Men of true stature have entered the campaign.

Hocine Ait Ahmad, leader of the Socialist Forces Front, is an ardent secularist who none the less insists that excluding the Islamists from the political arena is disastrous.

Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, an elder statesman, has both a nationalist and an Islamic appeal.

And Mouloud Hamrouche, a former prime minister, represents reformist political and economic ideas that have been increasingly vindicated.

Last week the outlawed FIS called on its supporters to vote for Mr Ibrahimi. Even without that endorsement, he was perhaps the most popular candidate. In a fair election, he would appear to be unbeatable.

But will the generals permit such an outcome? And to prevent it, will they resort to the massive fraud many are forecasting? To do so would be to risk an explosion of popular wrath, backed by all the opposition candidates, that could turn a contest in the ballot box into a violent showdown on the streets.