en Bouteflika prepared to lift ban on FIS

Bouteflika prepared to lift ban on FIS

By Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, 19.7.99

Algeria’s banned Islamic Salvation Front (Fis) will be allowed eventually to re-organise in a new party but not with its historical leadership, according to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

In an interview at the weekend, Mr Bouteflika said this was a measure he « envisages ». He also said the cancellation of elections the Fis had been poised to win in 1992 had been an act of « violence ».

However, he said firmly that individuals who had been involved in violence, or in encouraging it through words or writings, would not be able to take part in a new political movement that could be reconstituted.

« If I accept that secularists or even atheists should be involved in political parties, I don’t see why I wouldn’t accept the same for a man of faith on the condition that he abides by the constitution, » he said.

« But the problem is simple, though also dramatic: civil society has told me that it would follow me in all my initiatives as long as I don’t compromise with those who issued religious edicts or encouraged violence, and I have to take this into account. »

Abassi Madani, the Fis leader under house arrest, would be released immediately, added the president, if he promised that he would not engage in politics.

Since taking over in an election in April, in which he was the army’s candidate, after his six rivals pulled out because they said it was rigged to his favour, Mr Bouteflika has been trying to prove that he is both sincere and capable of bringing peace to Algeria, but on terms acceptable to him and to the military establishment behind him.

He has raised expectations in recent weeks by releasing 2,500 Islamist prisoners and introducing a law that pardons Islamist rebels not directly involved in civilian massacres or rape.

The law is aimed at allowing the armed wing of Fis, which stopped fighting nearly two years ago, to find a place in Algerian society. It is also aimed at convincing extremist groups waging attacks against the army- backed regime to give up.

Allowing Fis to return in a new form, without the historical leadership and its populist message, would pose little threat to the Algerian regime. The 1996 constitution is restrictive and prevents parties with Islamist leanings from using religion in their campaigning.

The president also said he was examining the thorny question of the disappeared – human rights organisations say as many as 3,000 people are alleged to have been taken by security forces – and was in contact with other countries which had suffered a similar problem to find ways of identifying bodies.

However, Mr Bouteflika’s strategy so far appears to be one that will be directed from the top, much to the disappointment of Algeria’s secular opposition, which has fought for peace but believes stability can only come by committing the regime to a transition to civilian democratic rule.

A group of prominent opposition figures is trying to organise a conference for peace and hoping to involve Mr Bouteflika. The president, however, said: « The time for national conferences is definitely over . . . There will be no revision or change of regime. »

Convincing Algerians and the outside world that the country is coming out of its more than seven-year crisis is essential for Mr Bouteflika to tackle his second priority. This is to attract investment and revive Algeria’s sick economy so as to produce tangible benefits for a population suffering an unemployment rate of 30 per cent and an acute housing crisis.

Foreign investors have poured billions of dollars in recent years into Algeria’s oil and gas sector but little has gone into employment- generating areas.

Senior officials in Algiers estimate the country needs $1bn to $1.5bn of annual foreign investment outside the energy sector to produce sufficient growth and absorb new entrants into the workforce.

Algerians who keep assets outside the country – $30bn (£19.3bn) by some accounts – will be given guarantees, including a possible fiscal amnesty, to repatriate their money to invest, the president said.

Mr Bouteflika also has been campaigning to end what he calls the « air embargo » on Algeria, a move that would send the message that the country was now a more manageable risk. He blames France, the former colonial power, for having persuaded other European countries to ban flights to Algeria, after the hijacking of a French Airbus nearly five years ago, and for maintaining the embargo.

In a veiled warning to countries looking for oil and gas contracts in Algeria’s under-explored energy field, Mr Bouteflika said: « I cannot accept that countries could have privileged relations with Algeria, especially in the energy field, but that they should go through France to deal with us. We will fight this. It is a question of pride. »