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Once Fishing for Democracy, Algeria Cuts Bait

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Algeria's five-year experiment in giving power to the people has brought on some of the world's worst political violence. And now the North African country's military-backed president is trying to stuff the genie of democracy back into its bottle.

In a national referendum last Thursday that most observers agree was rife with fraud, the government claims Algerians approved a constitutional change that bans Islamic political parties and further consolidates the president's power.

"Rather than fostering an open political process," a European diplomat here says, "[President Liamine] Zeroual has just forged a constitutional dictatorship."

The changes aim to squash Islamic parties that have been bucking for power ever since 1991, when the government allowed multiparty elections but abruptly annulled the results before the popular Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) could claim its rightful victory. The government then outlawed the FIS.

Since then, the FIS and its splinter groups have been trying to oust the government with violence and counter-violence that has killed some 60,000 people.

But the constitutional changes could serve to stiffen the Islamists' resolve. "This will convince the guerrillas that their fight is blessed by God against an imperial power," says the diplomat.

The amendment also creates an upper house of parliament - one-third of whose members the president will appoint - that can veto any legislation generated in the lower house. President Zeroual's opponents say this gives him and his successors "the ability to essentially block any grass-roots initiative."

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