Why Algeria was apt choice as intermediary on hostages

The North African nation of Algeria, with a 30-year tradition of revolution and radicalism, has been emerging in recent months as a moderate Arab socialist state with a mild affinity Westward.

But because of its staunchly revolutionary past, it also has stature among third-world nations such as Iran. Algeria, therefore, was a natural for its difficult role as intermediary in the hostage affair.

The arid, oil-rich nation is influenced by three major factors:

* Ideologically and militarily, Algeria is close to the Soviet Union -- although politically the Communist Party has been banned since 1962.

* Algeria's financial ties are to the West. Principal oil markets are in the United States and Europe -- and will increasingly be so in years to come.

* But because 99 percent of its people are Muslims, the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism has influenced internal developments.

Yet, overall, Algeria is committed to the West's ideas on development.

Last fall, Algerian President Chadli Benjedid indicated his nation is not about to sacrifice the well-being of its 18.5 million citizens to the lower living standards that mark Muslim fundamentalism or the third world.

"The high standard of living the people are looking for is not for tomorrow," President Benjedid said.

A French colony for 132 years, Algeria became independent in 1962 after a long and bitter struggle. For the next 17 years, with decreasing fervor, the nation followed a radical course -- still, however, tied economically and linguistically to France.

In the late 1979, the Benjedid regime recommitted itself to the socialist ideals of former President Ahmed Ben Bella and attempted to shift its $7.3 billion in oil sales (1978) from the US and France to third-world and socialist bloc nations.

But developments in Iran and other Arab states convinced the current regime that recommitment to socialism could spark revival of Islamic fundamentalism and/or Berber nationalism.Thus the regime quickly returned to the pragmatism of former President Houari Boumedienne.

Algeria's overall development plans seem to be guiding it toward even closer relations with the West in years to come. By the year 2010, a network of trunk lines will be pumping Algerian natural gas into Europe terminals, the nation's crude oil reserves having diminished. Based on trade and aid agreements with the European Community, some Arab observers predict that by the end of the century Algeria could actually become a member of the EC.

A further commitment toward joining the Western mainstream can be seen in Algeria's plan to spend $70 million to switch its secondary language from French to english. Arabic is still the official language.

Although Algeria generally has aligned itself with the Syria-Libya-South Yemen radicals among Arab states, in recent months it has moderated policies across the board. No longer, for instance, is Algeria insisting on indexing of oil prices by OPEC.

It has avoided joining sides in the Iran- Iraq war or the various border disputes among Arab states. Algeria, however, is firmly against the Camp David accords and backs the Palestinians.

But Algerians have not automatically sided with Iran in the hostage dispute. Algerian negotiators, for instance, let it be known that they were not in sympathy with the Iranian demand in December for $23 billion in exchange for the 52 Americans.But neither did they condemn Iran and thereby jeopardize t heir position in the middle.

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