Rule by Tank in Algeria


Another experiment in democracy bit the dust. President Chadli Benjedid's bold plan to introduce more real democracy in Algeria than any Arab state has known ended Sunday under the tracks of the tanks President Chadli himself sent into Algiers. Their mission was to destroy the movement that would have won the election that was just postponed, and that would in all probability have ended democracy itself.

The arrest of Abbasi Madani, chief of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), his principal lieutenant, Ali Belhadj and hundreds (or thousands) of their followers, along with seizure of their headquarters and two mosques, is a challenge thrown down to the Muslim fundamentalists. It risks civil warfare.

Algeria has been ruled by the tank since its independence from France in 1962. That rule has been secularist and socialist. The Muslim fundamentalist movement has grown up in opposition to the established power and to a French culture that, in France, resists accepting North Africans. President Chadli's reaction to riots in 1988 was to authorize political parties -- 47 now exist -- and an electoral process in which the FIS swept to control of local governments last year.

Quite why the FIS created unrest to disturb the parliamentary election that had been scheduled for June 27 is unclear. It called strikes and disobedience until President Chadli put his own office on the electoral line, which he has in principle promised to do. But the parliamentary election is off for the time being and the opposition that might have won is jailed and crushed. Somewhat quaintly, the party is still legal.

The two FIS leaders stand accused of "fomenting, organizing, triggering and leading an armed conspiracy against the security of the state," a hard charge to refute. They had called for "jihad," or holy struggle, unless the state of emergency was lifted. After Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged Algerians to follow Iranian example in establishing an Islamic republic, Iran's ambassador was summoned to Algeria's foreign ministry and told to quit meddling.

What President Chadli has failed to do is transfer his base of power from the army to the people. The army is back in a central role, and his government cannot do without it. So long as Algeria remains economically depressed, the government will need the tanks to stay in power.

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