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Algeria: politically bankrupt, financially embarrassed.

Algeria is storing up trouble for the future on a scale which must cause anxiety throughout the region. Politically, the regime cannot bring itself to entertain serious democratic reforms. Its limited vision extends only so far as repressing (and thus further inflaming) the Islamist opposition. Economically, as Alfred Hermida reports, the government pays lip-service to change, but has taken nostalgic refuge in the discredited socialist maxims of the past.

The drafting of 15,000 troops (around half the army) into the capital since May starkly underlines the beleaguered government's fear of the growing fundamentalist threat and the deteriorating security situation. "Either the government is desperate and expecting real trouble - or else it's determined to deliver a crushing blow to the Islamic militants", commented one Western diplomat in Algiers.

He described new tactics involving the sealing off of entire areas of the city for days at a time while house-to-house searches for terrorists were carried out. Police sources say 1,100 terrorists are sought throughout the country. Locals say Algiers has been turned into an armed camp, some schools even being closed early to be used as barracks.

One local commentator explained the aim was to deliver a once-and-for-all pre-emptive blow to the armed fundamentalists "before they're in a position to really challenge the state." He was sceptical about its chances of success. "They're simply tackling the symptoms, not the cause. Until the regime makes real changes and starts to solve the country's problems, however many terrorists they arrest, others will simply take their place."

Some believe the unprecedented show of force is a response to a new threat posed by formerly disparate Islamic groups starting to coordinate operations under a unified military command and gradually escalating sporadic hit-and-run strikes into a full-scale insurgency. In a new tactic that has thoroughly alarmed the government, a group of 49 Muslim militants were arrested last April in the southern Algerian town of Laguat as they were planning to attack the gas pipeline that links Algeria to Italy. A particularly worrying factor was that the "suspect group" consisted largely of professionals, including doctors and teachers, who were setting up the operation for the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA). This implies a considerable level of anti-regime collaboration among apparently respectable middle-class Algerians.

Evidence of organised civilian support mirrors the situation suspected to prevail in the army where a number of successful attacks on barracks were guided and led by infiltrators within the military. A particularly spectacular massacre occurred in March when 19 soldiers were shot and stabbed to death in a barracks south of Algiers and 16 more wounded by a group of 23 Islamists. The Islamists' military adherents constitute a fifth column which the regime fears might one day be capable of destroying it from within and paving the way for an Islamic state.

The insurmountable problem for the government is that it has no means of detecting these closet fundamentalists until they strike. For their part, the Islamists have shown they are perfectly prepared to lose their lives in carrying out a single operation.

Economic sabotage, still in an embryonic stage and so far unsuccessful, could eventually cripple the already struggling economy. Following the abortive attack on gas installations, the energy minister voiced the government's concern at this switch of tactics, particularly when it targets the vital energy sector. More effective attacks could also affect international business confidence regarding the planned gas pipeline linking Algeria with Spain via Morocco and oil and gas exploration deals with foreign oil companies.

Accurate estimates of the size of armed fundamentalist groups do not exist (they range from 5,000 to 15,000) and their supporters' numbers are even more vague. Popular backing often takes the form of passive hostility to the government rather than active support for the fundamentalists, although this could change if the guerrillas get stronger.

There is also confusion as to how unified the groups really are. Some experts argue that factionalism and infighting are growing rather than diminishing between about eight shadowy and highly secretive groups. One Islamic expert told The Middle East bluntly that "they all hate each other."

The core of Algeria's difficulties is less a reflection of the growing strength of the Islamic opposition than of the regime's total inability to cope, let alone find solutions. The government's unprecedented show of force in the capital is attributed to the panicky realisation that it may be losing the political initiative to the Islamic opposition, and an urgent need in the face of mounting criticism from all sides (even indirectly from its sponsors, the armed forces) to "show it is in control and doing something".

The truth according to its critics is that the government has neither a policy nor the legitimacy to carry one out. Its economic recovery programme - supposed to solve the problems that fuel fundamentalism - exists on paper only and it has no strategy for dealing with the crisis except tightening repression. This has (so far) kept the lid on the simmering struggle but resolved none of the underlying problems.

In addition, the difficulties and contradictions already inherent in a government TABULAR DATA OMITTED installed by force have simply increased 15-months of government inertia and dithering to a point where the power vacuum alone threatens the stability of the country. With its appeal as an ideological and spiritual alternative, the Islamic movement is well-placed to exploit the vacuum.

"The regime is hoist by its own petard," explains a well-informed Algerian insider. "It has created a situation of political impasse from which it cannot escape. Not only is it bankrupt of ideas but it cannot move forwards to democracy or elections because it fears that the same group - the Islamists - would once again triumph. Above all, its political manoeuvrings are aimed at putting off the day of elections."

To this end the government remains engaged in the increasingly irrelevant exercise of talks with opposition political groups, a process which after several months has got nowhere. The idea was dreamt up by the army to try and "refresh" political dialogue and provide a semblance of democratic consultation. It is not taken seriously even by the participants.

Ali Kafi, the uninspiring chairman of the Higher Council of State, the regime's collective presidency, declared in May that a constitutional referendum would be held before the end of the year. A greater role is proposed for the Conseil consultatif national, which is a purely advisory body. New election rules would be offered, presumably designed to block the FIS. But the regime is making no promises about the restoration of democracy. That, Kafi emphasised, will only occur when the basis is laid for steady economic development. No-one should hold their breath.

Kafi has also addressed the nation on the government's economic recovery strategy. All too predictably, it offered little change and even less hope of anything actually being done.

There has, for instance, been no campaign against corruption. The black market is flourishing, largely as a result of the government's obstinate refusal to devalue the dinar. The maintenance of a high foreign exchange rate is the chief obstacle in the way of the IMF's reluctance to reach a new credit agreement.

Belaid Abdessalam, the prime minister, explains his failure to embark on an economic reform programme by fear of uncontrollable social unrest. But many Algerians, mindful of his past as overseer of Algeria's disastrous socialist industrialisation policy of the 1970's suspect he simply does not believe in the reforms anyway.

The "military-industrial mafia" that bankrupted the country is still in place, refusing to give up privileges (such as control of imports) and still wielding considerable behind-the-scenes political power. Cynics argue this clique has used the excuse of terrorism and instability to postpone change indefinitely.

Algerians are increasingly weary and cynical. There is widespread despair at the inability and lack of will among the country's leaders to do anything more than remain in power through force.

"Algeria is a time-bomb," says a disillusioned businessman. "The dangers are growing daily. But the government seems to have lost what little initiative it had. This feeds directly into the hands of its enemies." Others believe the regime can continue to stay in power through force, however unpopular it is. This may be harder to achieve in Algeria than elsewhere because the country experienced - albeit briefly - the freest political system in the Arab world, unwittingly opening a Pandora's box it is still struggling to close. Leaders in Morocco and Tunisia, who also have an Islamic opposition, sigh with relief that they did not choose to risk the same political openness.
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Title Annotation:Special Feature
Author:Hermida, Alfred
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:1430
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