Algeria stumbles toward a new era

Algeria stumbles toward a new era

Stirrings of democracy

By Stanley A. Weiss (International Herald Tribune), Thursday, October 30, 2003

ALGIERS: Is the greater Middle East on the verge of an historic political and economic transformation? Beyond Iraq, one early sign will come when Algerians go to the polls this spring to elect a president.

In crushing militant Islamists during an 11-year civil war, Algeria’s rulers avoided the possibility that the country would become an Iranian-style theocracy, but at the cost of more than 100,000 lives, mostly civilians. After so much bloodshed, can Algeria’s military, which considers itself the guardian of a modern, secular republic, emulate the Turkish model and build bridges with moderate Islamic leaders? Two possible paths were revealed in conversations with leaders espousing very different visions of how to reintegrate Algeria into the world community.

General Muhammad Lamari, the armed forces chief, is a member of « le pouvoir » (« the power »), the military elite that has run Algeria since independence from France in 1962. The one-party rule of the National Liberation Front, or FLN, was a front for the generals until they seized power outright in 1992. That year, free elections threatened to give a parliamentary majority to the Islamist Salvation Front, whose ranks included both moderates who professed democratic pluralism and militants like Ali Belhaj, who declared, « When we are in power, there will be no more elections because God will be ruling. »

« Before the war we had 27,000 trigger-pulling terrorists in Algeria, » General Lamari told me and a group of U.S. business leaders. « Now we have about 600, and they are no real threat. »

A very different battle is being waged by the minister of energy, Chakib Khelil, a U.S.-educated former World Bank economist who clearly recognizes that the root causes of Algeria’s troubles are not religious but economic – the persistent inequities between the francophone elite and the estimated half of Algerians under 30 without work.

For decades, revenues from Algeria’s vast oil and gas reserves masked the economy’s deep-seated flaws. But collapsing world oil prices in the mid-1980’s ended the illusion, and the Black October riots of 1988 gave rise to the Islamist Salvation Front as the sole alternative to the corrupt FLN regime.

Eleven years later, Khelil speaks of the need to liberalize the socialist-style economy, privatize inefficient state-run industries, promote foreign investment and use Algeria’s hydrocarbons to create jobs. Khelil enjoys the support of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is restoring political, economic and military ties with the United States and the European Union.

But Boutelflika’s economic liberalization and amnesty program for Islamic militants has cost him the support of le pouvoir, trade unions and his own party, the FLN, which remains the only game in town. These king-makers appear to be coalescing around former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, a populist whom Bouteflika sacked this spring for opposing his economic policies. In a rebellion against Bouteflika, the FLN this month nominated Benflis for president, setting the scene for a political showdown.

It may be too late to save Bouteflika. But it is not too late to save Algeria’s fragile transition to greater political and economic freedom.

Washington still has leverage with le pouvoir. Lamari seeks the legitimacy of an invitation to Washington. His military seeks advanced U.S. night-vision goggles to defend against Islamic militants who strike after dark. As a precondition for deeper military ties, Washington should insist that le pouvoir use day-vision goggles to see more clearly that a military solution alone cannot root out the economic, political and social causes of Algeria’s turmoil.

Algeria has little to fear from free and fair elections. Longing for peace and stability, Algerians are unlikely to turn to Islamic militants with so much blood on their hands. Like military leaders in Turkey, Lamari says the military « will salute the choice of the people, » even an Islamic party « on the condition that it respects the rules of the game. »

Today’s stirrings in Algeria won’t lead to a Jeffersonian democracy. But Algeria, like Turkey and Iraq, may yet emerge as a model for a new set of rules that propel a much-needed political and economic transformation across the greater Middle East.

The writer is founder and chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington. This is a personal comment.