After 60,000 Killings, Algeria Tries a Little Civility

A June 5 election kept the military in control. Moderate Islamic leaders won some seats; radicals remain out.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The young woman looked out from under her Islamic headcover and ticked off her reasons for voting.

"We must stop Algeria's violence, find peace, and give religion a more important role in our lives," she said.

Her mother cast furtive glances to make sure no one else was in earshot, then went further: "Islam is peace!" she proclaimed.

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This view contrasts starkly with that of Algeria's military-backed regime - known simply as le pouvoir, the power - which has tried to stamp out a five-year Islamist insurgency by force.

The last time Algerians voted for a parliament, in 1991, they were on the verge of handing a populist Islamic party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a landslide victory. The Army intervened, the Islamist hard-liners were forced underground or arrested, and the subsequent war of terror between the two sides has left some 60,000 dead.

So Algeria's second attempt at the polls last Thursday was engineered differently. It restored legitimacy to a regime with a dual policy of applying heavy force against the Islamist rebels, and limited democracy for everyone else.

President Liamine Zeroual, a retired general, ensured that the new parliament would not threaten his rule. The FIS is still outlawed, and the two legal Islamic parties permitted to run had to change their names under the strict election rules.

The result well suits the cabal of generals who run Algeria. Pro-government parties won 219 of the 380 seats in parliament, and despite opposition cries of foul even the legal Islamic parties are unlikely to pull out of parliament.

Any other result would have been a surprise, analysts say.

"The 'power' men are still the power," says Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah, head of the most hard-line legal Islamic party, An-Nahdah. He says his party's 34 seats should have been 20 more, but that they were "stolen" by vote rigging.

"Nothing has changed," he says; government promises that the election would yield peace have been false.

Fair elections?

Western diplomats note "considerable concern" of ballot stuffing, especially at mobile polling stations that were widely used in this North African country, which is largely Sahara desert and more than three times the size of Texas.

The runup to voting day was marred by a spate of bombings and attacks in Algiers that left more than 20 dead. A security operation that saturated the capital with 200,000 police ensured calm for the Thursday vote.

FIS leaders in exile called for boycott, but the official 65 percent turnout - in which security forces often seemed to outnumber voters in Algiers - is in line with or slightly less than past elections.

Before the election, Mahfoud Nahnah, leader of the legal Islamic Hamas party, which is more moderate than its Palestinian namesake, said the vote was "the marriage of Algeria with peace." Hamas took second, winning 69 seats.

But hope for change has been dashed by the government's mishandling of the election, he says.

Democracy needs time

Interior Minister Mustafa Benmansour countered that "Fraud is not part of the vocabulary of Algerian politics." The vote, he said, was "not marred by any distortion." He called the victory of the National Democratic Rally - the party of President Zeroual that was created only two months ago and collected 155 seats - "a decisive response" to "conspiracies and terrorism."

Still, one Western diplomat notes that in the three decades since independence from French colonial rule in 1962, Algeria has been a one-party state that will take time to adapt to new requirements of democracy. "There are enormous control reflexes in the older generations of the regime," he says.

Although the new parliament is weak and must share power with another house, in which one-third of the seats are appointed by the president, analysts say that its power may derive from the ability to slow down legislation and expose corruption.

For the already emasculated Islamists, that promise is small compared with the annulled vote of 1991, when the FIS gathered antigovernment protest votes from across the political spectrum.

Seeking pluralism under Islam

"The politicians promised many things, but I'm not sure they will apply them," says Mohammed Taib, an Islamic scholar. "The love of power, the love of appearances, is not good for the future."

Sheikh Djaballah of An-Nahdah agrees: "We are fighting for a democratic and plural system - but one surrounded by all the religious, Islamic, and revolutionary ideas."

After so much bloodshed, though, the gap between Algeria's Islamic faithful and not-so-faithful is wide and growing.

"There is a civic culture trying to be born," says a Western diplomat. "People trying to build a life and a country in all this mess."

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