Algerians Confront Ruling Elite

Many now think entrenched leaders, not fundamentalists, were behind presidential killing

AFTER the assassination of Algerian President Mohamed Boudiaf four weeks ago, the country buzzed with murmurings about an imminent civil war, pitting the military and "progressive" forces against Algeria's Islamic fundamentalists.

Today many Algerians believe that the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the fundamentalists' best-known organization, was not involved in Boudiaf's assassination. The crime is now thought to have been the work of forces inside Algeria's power structure - deeply entrenched after nearly 30 years of single-party rule - which had much to lose from Boudiaf's anti-corruption campaign.

The commission investigating the killing released a report July 26 that included a finding of "criminal negligence" on the part of the presidential security service and rejected the initial thesis that an assassin motivated by religious conviction acted alone. Officials said 10 members of the security service and Algeria's special forces were arrested in relation to the assassination.

"Since Boudiaf's death, the Algerian people have come to realize that what is called the `mafia,' the circle of wealth, corruption, and power, is a more important problem for the country's future than the religious question," said Ali El-Kenz, director of the Center for Applied Economics Research at the University of Algiers, in a telephone interview from Paris.

That realization has led to a "liberating" sense of relief for many Algerians, he added. "The truth may be more complicated than what people thought, but it is nonetheless simpler to vent one's anger with people within the state than to confront the eventuality of a civil war," Mr. El-Kenz said. "One senses a popular will to turn away from the religious and cultural battles of the past few years and put the country back to work."

A decade of economic decline and a longer period of political inertia have paralyzed the country, analysts say, and laid the ground for Islamic fundamentalists promising radical change.

Algeria is not alone in its attempts to squash the fundamentalist movement and pull free of a debilitating religious war.

Next door in Tunisia, 279 members of the outlawed an-Nahda fundamentalist movement are on trial, charged with terrorism and conspiracy to assassinate President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and overthrow the government. The Egyptian government is undertaking frequent mass arrests of fundamentalists accused of fomenting violent public disturbances. And it is pushing through new laws making political violence a capital crime.

"These states are moving to reassert themselves after realizing that either they act or it's the end for their vision of their country's future," says Yadh Ben Achour, a Tunisian legal scholar and author of a recent work on politics, law, and religion in the Arab world.

Regional observers agree that Algeria has the longest way to go in reestablishing a working government, because Algeria's economic and social conditions have been deteriorating for so many years. "The FIS was a movement responding to a vacuum left by the state," says Mohsen Toumi, a Tunisian economist working in Paris. "Tunisia has a growing economy and a cohesive social structure where things never fell so far."

But the press to reassert state authority is also posing threats to human rights across the region. Journalists have been jailed, and a Tunisian commission appointed by President Ben Ali recently acknowledged the widespread use of torture against fundamentalists and other political prisoners. The Arab world's oldest human rights organization, the Tunisian Human Rights League, was dissolved under legislation passed in June.

"That kind of action is a discredit to the government and only causes them more trouble," Mr. Ben Achour says, "but in the current atmosphere it's a matter of saving face."

Despite the anti-fundamentalist actions, observers like Mr. Toumi and Ben Achour say the fundamentalist movements will continue indefinitely because the basic conflicts in the Arab world that spawned them - tradition versus modernity, Western-oriented elites versus poor masses - have never been resolved.

"[Fundamentalism] will decline when the people are satisfied economically and socially, and when they see that what the fundamentalists propose is not for them," Toumi says. "It won't be forced out by the billy club."

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