Violence Grows as Algiers Prepares To Ban Opposition
IN Algeria, the thought on many minds as the week draws to an end is, "Will this be another Friday of anguish?"Skip to next paragraph
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In the month since national elections favoring the country's Islamic fundamentalists were canceled and a government under tight military guidance was installed, Friday prayers have become the nucleus on which increasing tension and violence have built.
With the government determined to eradicate a well-rooted politicization of many of the country's mosques by fundamentalist imams, an atmosphere of foreboding has built up each week as Friday approaches. More than 60 people have died in riots or other confrontations pitting members of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and their supporters against the police and military.
Most recently six policemen were ambushed and killed Monday in the Algerian capital's fabled Casbah quarter, only hours after the president of the country's ruling Council of State, Mohammed Boudiaf, announced a one-year state of emergency.
Whether tomorrow becomes another "Friday of anguish," as some Algerians now call Islam's day of public prayer, could be determined by the response to FIS calls for a "peaceful march" in Algiers to highlight public resistance to government measures.
The government has banned the march. But the FIS, which responded to the state of emergency by imploring Algerians not to "give up" and to defeat the new government's "political piracy," could deny the government what it most desires: a return to calm and evidence of renewed national confidence in the state.
In announcing the state of emergency, Mr. Boudiaf said the government's priorities include "liberating citizens from the FIS's grasp." The government has already arrested most of the party's leadership and closed its Algiers headquarters.
The government is also expected to announce shortly a reshuffle that will reduce the number of ministers, increase Interior Ministry powers, and result in a tighter focus on the dual priorities of security and economic growth.
Government sources say a ban on the FIS is "in the works" and simply awaits judicial authorization. The Algerian Constitution in effect outlaws political parties based on religion.
But banning the FIS, which claims 3 million "adherents" in a country of 25 million, based on its front-runner results in December's first round of elections, entails at least two risks:
* The Islamic fundamentalist movement could be pushed underground, as it has been in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco and lead to a cycle of terrorist violence and destabilization.
* Algerians, who in 1990 elected FIS governments in an overwhelming majority of municipalities, might lose all confidence in a nonelected government that seeks to oust local elected officials.
The dangers of suppressing the fundamentalists are already evident in the number of security personnel killed in the last month. The movement's violent extreme, made up largely of young Algerians called "Afghans" who fought for the resistance against Afghanistan's Soviet-backed government, is already implicated in the Casbah killings and other confrontations.
The Afghans are believed to benefit from some Islamic extremist support, and have also captured the imagination of a certain fraction of Algeria's legions of unemployed young men.
More mainstream Algerians might not take well to seeing local officials elected under the FIS banner removed from office. One government official close to the Council of State's operations says FIS officials will be replaced by "provisional administrators appointed by the state" until new elections can be held.
A problem the government may face is that FIS municipalities often won a reputation for honesty that Algerians welcomed after 30 years of one-party rule under the National Liberation Front.
"I didn't vote FIS [in municipal elections], but I can say from experience that they operate local administrations in a much cleaner fashion," says Mohammed Amarni, a foreman with a contracting firm in the Algiers suburbs. "With the FLN it was always the payoff, but with the FIS that has stopped."