Toward a Showdown in Algeria


The Algerian army's onslaught against guerrillas in recent days will accomplish good if it is accompanied by negotiations with opposition parties leading to a transfer of authority. The regime of President Liamine Zeroual has the power to unify the opposition or drive a wedge between its moderate and fanatic wings. Too often, it has done the former.

The military regime in Algeria is wrong to claim through semi-official newspapers that it has virtually eliminated the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the more terroristic of the insurrectionary armies. Terrorists have a way of letting regimes know whether they have been crushed. It isn't dead bodies that count in the restoration of order; it's reduction of acts of terror.

Probably the best thing that happened is that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the mainstream extremists, denounced the wave of assassinations of women. Male and female journalists and women in the professions have been targets of GIA, which has threatened to gun down wives of policemen as well. The terror has sent a wave of revulsion through Algeria and Algerian emigre communities as well as through the West. However tyrannical the military-secular-socialist government, the GIA certainly, and the FIS very likely, would be worse.

Two signs of the accommodation that must come materialized over the weekend. One was a meeting in Paris between government representatives and the tamest of the opposition groups. The other was a pledge by Anwar Haddam, president of FIS, that the opposition groups will meet again soon to build on their meeting in January in Rome.

The Rome meeting called for release of political prisoners and establishment of an interim regime to precede negotiations with the government. Mr. Zeroual, for his part, promised elections this year and seems bent on holding them on his terms, perhaps with oppositions he approves of -- and no others.

The FIS had clearly won the first round of elections in 1992 when the government suspended them. That group is more extremist now that it is outlawed and has three years of civil war under its belt. The Islamist movement, which has seemed likely to destroy the regime, is a potential oppressor of the Berber ethnic minority and of the many Algerians who are modernist, secularist and French in culture.

The revolution is more likely to split up Algeria than subdue it. Accommodation between the government and FIS is what might hold the country together, and they both ought to see that.

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