Gulf War Puts Algerian Democracy on Hold

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ALGERIA was supposed to be in the middle of campaign season right now, with what were to be the country's first national multiparty elections. Instead, much of the public is preoccupied with what is widely considered the destruction of Iraq, and the elections have fallen from the national agenda.

Instead of campaign posters, the most popular political statement these days are the graffiti of Iraqi Scud missiles sprouting in Algerian cities.

``For the time being the elections are of no interest to us,'' says Hocine Guermouche, chief spokesman for the Movement for Democracy in Algeria, the party of former Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella. ``More important right now is the solidarity we are expressing as Arabs and as Muslims with the besieged Iraqi people.''

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The elections will return to ``the top of the political agenda'' once the war is over, ``so the Algerian people can finally have a parliament that really represents them,'' Mr. Guermouche says.

Not all analysts of Algeria's political situation agree, however. Most say President Chadli Benjedid has taken advantage of the Gulf war and the agitation it has created in the country to put off elections his party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), was virtually certain to lose.

Mr. Chadli announced last year that he would dissolve the current all-FLN People's National Assembly and call elections in the first quarter of 1991. The elections were then put off to June. Observers say they are now unlikely before the fall, if then.

Algeria's government was already largely discredited by disastrous economic and social conditions. The Gulf war and its aftermath are likely to slow, if not halt, further democratic initiatives, analysts say, while also stopping the economic reform program that was based on foreign - mostly Western - investment and joint ventures.

``The democratization process was already slowing down, and the war is going to apply further brakes to the process,'' says Abdelkader Djeghloul, an Algerian historian and sociologist. ``I think we could see the elections put off sine die.''

Adds Remy Leveau, an Arab specialist at the Political Studies Institute in Paris, ``Algeria's democratization process is finished.''

More likely now, says Mr. Leveau, given the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist movement, is a regime on the ``Pakistani model,'' in which a controlling military would ``allow'' religious leaders to govern.

The country's Islamic parties, the largest of which is the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), constitute the only movement capable at the moment of demanding that the elections take place. But even the FIS has found it difficult to profit from the ground swell of public support for Iraq, since the fundamentalists cannot easily dismiss their long financial ties with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf states now associated with the ``Western invader.''

``What we're seeing is a sort of alliance between the government and the so-called democratic parties to put off the elections, since none of them would benefit from holding them now,'' says Ali al-Kenz, director of research at the Center for Economic Development Research in Algiers. At the same time, he adds, the FIS isn't enjoying the following it once did, because its support for Iraq is ambiguous.

``Everyone,'' he says, ``is trying to catch up with the street.''

The FIS did ask the government to allow it to form training camps where Muslim soldiers would be prepared to go fight on the side of Islam in Iraq. But the government, sensing both a publicity stunt and perhaps an attempt to form a sort of party militia that could operate domestically, nipped the idea in the bud.

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