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Army Cancels Elections in Algeria

Interim government looks for means to dissolve the popular Islamic Fundamentalist Party

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 1992



ALGIERS

THE Algerian government, reduced to key military and ministerial officials after the Jan. 11 resignation of President Chadli Benjedid and the dissolution of parliament, is developing a national stabilization plan that does not foresee presidential and legislative elections for a year or more.

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Convinced that the country risks grave instability and even deeper economic decline without a period free of political turmoil, the Army-backed High Security Council, in power since President Benjedid's surprise resignation, is expected soon to unveil a plan for a "collegial" presidency to implement a sweeping economic redressment program. Some government sources say declaration of a state of emergency is "imminent."

The government is also contemplating a complete dissolution of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the principal Islamic fundamentalist political party, as unconstitutional. Turmoil erupted in Algeria after the staggering victory of the FIS in the first round of legislative elections Dec. 26.

Benjedid had reportedly negotiated an agreement with FIS leaders that called for power-sharing between the FIS and the National Liberation Front, the party in power since independence in 1962. But the Army, dominated by anti-FIS officers and increasingly critical of the president's management of Algeria's democratization process, demanded Benjedid's resignation. The second runoff round of national elections set for Jan. 16 was then canceled.

The government is now in the hands of Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, a respected and little-politicized former economics minister. The new prime minister appears to want above all to pull Algeria out of the economic quagmire he and other "reformists" say is at the root of FIS support.

Much of Algeria has held its breath anticipating FIS reaction to the cancellation of elections that were expected to give the party a strong parliamentary majority. The party's executive committee issued a statement Jan. 13 condemning the cancellation and calling on Algerians to "prepare to protect your choice."

Yet while the statement said the country was reduced to a "combat" between "the people, their religion, and Algeria on the one hand, and colonialism and its valets on the other," it did not speak in the harsh terms of a jihad (holy war) that were used by party leaders last June before bloody riots and the calling of a four-month state of siege. The party's principal leadership is still in prison without sentencing as a result of those events.

Some observers here believe the latest FIS statement may be the pretext the government will use to dissolve the party.

"We want to go toward a true reading of the constitution," one authoritative official close to the High Security Council's thinking told the Monitor before release of the FIS statement. "There are no illusions about how difficult this will be, but it's the only way to move Algeria from incessant political debate to addressing its underlying problems."

The Algerian Constitution, like those in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, outlaws religious-oriented political parties. But the FIS and other Islamic parties were tolerated in Benjedid's move toward multiparty democracy.

It will be difficult to dissolve and silence a political movement that has been legal since 1989 and which two different plebescites have shown is now the country's most influential. And it is uncertain that the country's other political organizations would go along with an arrangement that would in effect leave Algeria in an extra-constitutional situation without any elected leadership for an extended length of time.

The official source also said the plan to name a collegial presidency, made up of several leaders, and a consultative body to act as a sort of "interim legislature," was designed to give the country a constitutional government - in a situation unforeseen by the constitution - other than through "destabilizing" elections.

Elections would be put off at least a year, the source said, and perhaps through the end of Benjedid's 1993 mandate.

During that time, the government would focus on economic issues, and above all on the country's 22 percent unemployment.

"What one feels so strongly among Algerians right now is a deep sense of fatigue," says Ali El-Kenz, a social economist at the University of Algiers. "People have had enough of constant discussion and disruption especially when it seems to lead nowhere."