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President's Resignation May Halt Algerian Elections

Army takes control after fundamentalist electoral victory

THE resignation Saturday of Algerian President Chadli Benjedid gave one more jolt to a country already in a state of shock after the triumph of Islamic fundamentalists last month in the first round of legislative elections.

Ironically, the resignation comes as a relief to the country's pro-democracy forces. Even though the move puts the Army close to the seat of power, if not in it, it also will almost certainly lead to a full cancellation of the legislative election process that seemed set to give the fundamentalists a crushing majority in the national parliament. The second round of the vote was scheduled for Jan. 16.

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As of Sunday afternoon, the government of Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali had made no statement about the second round of the vote. But no one in the capital doubted it would be cancelled. Sources said a decision to put it off was expected Sunday night or Monday morning.

President Benjedid had insisted after the victory of the fundamentalists' principal party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), in the first round, that he would stay in office through his mandate - the end of 1993.

But the overwhelming victory of the FIS revealed more than ever a deeply divided country, and a situation which Benjedid apparently decided he could no longer manage. He said in a televised address that he was resigning "out of concern to preserve the unity of the people as well as the stability and security of the country."

Several sources close to the government said Benjedid, a former Army officer, had actually been forced to resign by Army officers. Sources said the Army was worried over signs that the president was trying to work out a "cohabitation" between the FIS and his ruling party, the National Liberation Front, which has run Algeria since independence.

These analysts say the Army, which has stayed out of the spotlight during the electoral process, was unwilling to risk the instability such an arrangement might presage. Such an agreement, they say, would be unacceptable to the middle class and pro-democratic forces.

The FIS has never hidden its disdain for democracy, indicating an intent to install an Islamic republic based on strict Islamic law. Pro-democracy groups, such as human-rights organizations and the Socialist Forces Front - which came in a distant second in the first-round vote - say they would never accept such a republic.

With Benjedid's resignation, the executive function will temporarily be filled by the president of the Constitutional Council. According to the Constitution, a presidential election must be called within 45 days, but few observers believed that would happen.

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"What we're likely to see is the setting of a date for presidential elections within those 45 days," says Joudir Souissi, director of the newspaper, Soir d'Algerie. "But this interim process is likely to go on for five or six months or more."

That would give the government time to attempt to stabilize the country and move forward on its economic reforms, which most analysts agree remain Algeria's most pressing need, and one of the root causes of its political disarray.

The question of most concern here Sunday was how the FIS would respond to the resignation. "How the FIS responds is going to determine the next chapter of our story," says Mr. Souissi.

The FIS has demanded snap presidential elections for more than a year, since it won municipal elections in 1990. But at the same time, at least, a faction of the fundamentalists will condemn the resignation as a move to deny the party the elections it clearly was set to win.

"Chadli's move was that of a coward, not of a statesman," said one FIS supporter here yesterday.

But not far away, another young man expressed his satisfaction with the president's decision: "What really happened was that the Army took over power, and for that I am happy, because I am a democrat."

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