To Cap Radical Islam, Algeria Tries Poll

June 5 election may strengthen rule of military. Islamists are undone by own tack.

As the people of this war-ravaged country get ready to cast their votes for parliament June 5, the memory of Algeria's last attempt at democracy five years ago still lingers.

Then, the military canceled the voting when it became clear that a fundamentalist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was winning. The result: a vicious civil war that has so far claimed the lives of more than 60,000 people.

This time, the possibility of a similar election upset appears slim. The FIS has been banned, and the regime, controlled by a tight-knit group of generals, has grown stronger. Indeed many Algerian observers say the election primarily represents an opportunity for the military establishment to gain legitimacy and consolidate its hold over the state.

"The regime has already set the rules in Algeria, and the elections won't change anything," says Mahfoud Bennoune, a retired political science professor who lives in a government compound outside the capital, Algiers.

For the past five years, as armed fundamentalists have waged war on the authoritarian state, political leaders have disagreed over how to deal with the problems of political Islam in Algeria.

Encouraged by international nongovernmental organizations, some have argued that peace can only come through dialogue. But Algeria's military leaders have pursued a hard-line strategy that officially seeks to "eradicate all terrorists," meaning Islamic fundamentalists.

So far, the generals have been successful in turning public support against the armed groups, whose prospects of taking power by force have been eliminated, according to most observers. Although most violence in Algeria takes place beyond the reach of Western TV cameras, the brutality of the rebel attacks has also convinced much of the international community that the government has no alternative but to crush the insurgency.

Islamists 'blew it'

Unemployment in Algeria hovers around 70 percent, and the dusty streets of the country's shantytowns are lined with restless young men. Here, the hatred for the wealthy elite that rules the nation is intense. It was among these people that the FIS amassed its support in the last election.

Although the FIS leaders promised to introduce sharia, a judicial system based on Islam, it was probably the party's pledge to throw out the corrupt generals and change the system that really resonated.

The prevailing view among Western diplomats is that the FIS "blew it" when it resorted to terrorism, and that the party not only lost popular support but also opened the door for the regime to legitimize its power. Others, such as Mostafa Bouchachi, the lawyer defending the imprisoned FIS leadership, disagree. "The responsibility for terrorism lies ... with the people who postponed the elections," he says.

The FIS used to support more extremist groups, such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), but such alliances have deteriorated. Desperation among the people is greater than ever. Diplomatic observers say that new rebel groups have formed in the Algerian countryside. "Before, these groups never attacked the civilian populations," says Omar Belhouchet, editor of El Watan, Algeria's largest daily paper. "Now they attack ... isolated villages, sometimes killing for killing's sake."

Often these bands clash with civilian militia groups that security forces have armed to control areas beyond the reach of the Army.

Trying politics

Algeria has also applied political means of dealing with fundamentalism. The Constitution now bans parties based on religion and prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs. At the same time, however, the Constitution declares Islam to be the state religion. Non-Muslims cannot attain high-level government posts.

Some Islamic support has been channeled to Hamas, the party - more moderate than the Palestinian version - whose leader, Mahfoud Nahnah, captured 25 percent of the vote in 1995's presidential election. To conform with the law, Hamas recently dropped its Islamic name and is now called the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), but it's still seeking an Islamic state.

"For Nahnah, the model for an Islamic state is the Gulf countries; for the FIS, the model was Iran," says Mr. Belhouchet.

While some observers argue that MSP presents no threat to the regime, others say that Mr. Nahnah is an exceptional politician who knows that his ultimate success rests on his willingness to cooperate with the military regime.

Diplomats predict many people will vote for the National Democratic Rally (RND), the party that was set up to support President Liamine Zeroual. "The elite represents a Western-oriented minority that will vote for the RND because it is scared of the alternative," says one diplomat.

Elections could at least provide a forum for democratic debate in Algeria, something the country has never had. But among Algeria's destitute masses, resignation seems to prevail. "I live day by day," says one teacher, requesting anonymity. "My motto is: Forget yesterday, live today, don't think about tomorrow."

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