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Algeria Walks Fine Political Line

Reform-minded president maneuvers between emboldened fundamentalists and restive Army

DESPITE having imposed a state of siege in Algeria, President Chadli Bendjedid appears determined to keep the country's democratic experiment moving forward. Yet, as it makes its way toward legislative and presidential elections now promised within six months, Algeria will be walking a fine line between two powerful forces: a fractured and unpredictable Islamic movement, emboldened by victories won through recourse to violence, and an Army which is unlikely to leave its new powers unused if events spin out of control.

Islamic fundamentalist protests that turned violent prompted President Chadli last Wednesday to transfer broad police powers to the Army, postpone national elections that were scheduled for June 27, and name a new prime minister.

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The fundamentalists, led by the National Salvation Front (FIS) and its leader, Abassi Madani, had first called a general strike that was largely unsuccessful. The strike's failure was viewed by a wide range of observers inside Algeria as evidence that the FIS was unlikely to repeat its victorious performance in municipal elections a year ago.

Fundamentalist supporters then turned to street protests which degenerated into violent exchanges which left at least seven people dead.

Having called the four-month state of siege, Chadli has also acted to demonstrate that events have not put on hold the country's 30-month-old process of democratization and economic reform begun after violent and widespread protests in 1988.

Chadli quickly consulted with leaders of major non-fundamentalist opposition parties, leading to speculation that a new government might for the first time include ministers from other than the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN). He named as prime minister former Foreign Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, a strong supporter of the political and economic reform process with no deep-rooted ties to the FLN.

Some observers both inside and outside Algeria speculate that Chadli may now attempt to build on growing public concern that the fundamentalists are unlikely to play by democratic rules unless they feel assured of victory. The FLN had already been accused during the aborted election campaign of whipping up fears of fundamentalist intolerance.

``One possibility is that Chadli will attempt to isolate the FIS by opening up to other political parties most opposed to the fundamentalists,'' says Remy Leveau, an Arab affairs specialist at the Paris Institute for Political Studies. ``But [last week's] events have served as a reminder that the FIS remains a strong social force and cannot be ignored.''

The FIS called off its general strike over the weekend after a Chadli-Madani meeting led to the president okaying presidential elections before the end of the year. That was one of the fundamentalists' key demands, though the FIS had called for simultaneous legislative and presidential elections. Mr. Ghozali announced Saturday that legislative elections would come first, in October.

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The FIS can now claim to have achieved its principal goals in calling the May strike, but its weakened position with the country's middle-classes is not likely to improve. Already, a portion of the population that had supported the FIS over the corruption-plagued and bureaucratic ruling party in last year's local elections is disillusioned over the FIS's preoccupation in office with symbolic issues such as consumption of alcohol in caf'es and female workers' obligation to wear veils.

FIS leaders acknowledge accomplishing very little in their year in local power, but claim all attempts were thwarted at the national level. A rare public opinion poll, published in one of the country's fledgling independent newspapers just hours after the state of siege was declared, indicated that the ruling party would have won legislative elections.

The fundamentalists' course is now unpredictable in part because the movement openly split following the Gulf war and in preparation for the election campaign. Madani's second-in-command, a firebrand imam from a working-class Algiers neighborhood, doesn't hide his rejection of democracy as a ``Western'' evil. And one faction openly advocates violence as a means of achieving the goal of an Islamic state.

The events in Algeria, the only North African country to have legalized the Islamic fundamentalist movement as part of a region-wide democratization process, have both comforted and chilled neighboring countries. In Tunisia, especially, where authorities recently unveiled details of what they claim was a fundamentalist plot to topple the government, the events will ease pressures to recognize an Islamic party.

At the same time, the destabilization of Algeria, North Africa's largest and most influential country, would have far-reaching effects throughout the region. Mindful of this, and also in recognition of ongoing efforts to remake the country's centrally planned economy, the International Monetary Fund last week approved a $405 million loan to allow Algeria's economic reforms to continue.

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