AFTER more than a year of a bloody standoff between Algeria's Army-backed regime and the country's underground Islamist militants that has cost more than 1,500 lives, a new wave of terrorism is targeting intellectuals.
Six prominent Algerian intellectuals have been killed since March, the most recent a sociologist murdered in his home last week before his daughter's eyes.
No one has claimed responsibility for any of the assassinations. And even though many intellectuals and officials assume an Islamist group is to blame, many observers say the sense of fear and despair that resulted from the latest attacks works in the interest of more than just the religious militants.
"There's so much confusion, no one can be sure who is doing what," says Fouad Boughanim, editor-in-chief of the Algiers daily, Le Soir d'Algerie. "But why they are doing it is not a mystery: It's a campaign to silence the forces for a progressive, democratic, and republican Algeria."
For Abdel-Kader Djeghloul, a prominent Algerian political scientist working in Paris, the "only certainty is that the six [murdered intellectuals] all represented and advocated a modern Algeria, and it's this modern Algeria they want to kill."
"They" could be the Islamists, Mr. Djeghloul says. But it also could be what in Algiers is called the "politico-financial mafia," the conservative forces behind the country's 30-year-old single-party structure that profited handsomely, in terms of money and power, from a system Algeria's intellectuals want to liquidate. Blaming the mafia
Most Algerians assume, for example, that the assassination a year ago of President Mohamed Boudiaf was not the design of the Islamists, even though a soldier espousing their ideas is charged with pulling the fatal trigger. The assumption is that this same mafia plotted to kill the president, who had returned from exile in Morocco to take his office, when it became clear he took seriously the goal of a democratic Algeria.
Algeria held its first multiparty national elections in December 1991, open to more than 25 political parties including the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). When it became clear after the first round of voting that the FIS would win a majority in the new parliament, the elections were cancelled, then-President Chadli Bendjedid was deposed, and an Army-backed High State Council, headed by Boudiaf, was created as a provisional executive and "legislature" over the government.
The FIS was outlawed and driven underground, which has led to a year of deadly battles between the country's security forces and Islamist militants. Just last month an Army patrol investigating reports of a rural arms cache was ambushed, leaving 40 soldiers dead. Support for Islamists
For the past year, the government's principal challenge as it tries to overcome the terrorist threat and revive a disastrously plunging economy has been how to deal with the 3 million Algerians who voted for the FIS in December 1991.
Yet given the population's deep and growing distrust of the regime of Prime Minister Belaid Abdesselam - a man associated with the state-run, centralized economic system he helped establish - word that the government is considering a "dialogue" with the very Islamists it has banned and imprisoned has been received by the public with deep skepticism.
Signaling that the government might be reconsidering its policy of repression toward the Islamists, Mr. Abdesselam said last week that "the situation has attained a dimension such that it is no longer possible to respond simply with the forces of order."
That may mean nothing more than an attempt to "recuperate" some of the militants' popularity, says Mr. Boughanim. "What has really held back the public from giving its support is the government's lack of clarity on where it wants to take the country," he adds. "The power has two heads [the High State Council and the Army], and they don't speak with one voice."
The government's complete lack of legitimacy before the public stems from the perception that it still stands on the foundations of the single-party structure, others say. "The fact that the government is now considering a dialogue with the FIS is the expression of its incapacity to break with the old power structure," Djeghloul says.
The public - and a good number of intellectuals - fear this regressive amalgam of Algeria's conservative political forces and the Islamists.
"The Algerian people are massively opposed to both the current powers and the Islamists," Djeghloul says. One solution, he says, would be for the Army to "break with the power in place" at the same time as it launched a full attack on the Islamists' antimilitary campaign. The public despairs
But while they wait for something to happen, Algerians have the sense their country is sinking further into fear and chaos.
Intellectuals who until recently spoke freely now silence themselves and lie low. (This reporter heard several nervous "no comment in the current context" responses from usually open sources.) The feeling of regression is augmented by multiparty elections last week in neighboring Morocco, which - while not challenging the power of King Hassan II - did result in reinforced parliamentary power for opposition parties.
Djeghloul is helping to develop a newly established, Paris-based International Committee to Support Algerian Intellectuals - an effort whose impact is felt in Algiers.
"It's important that Algeria's intellectuals know they aren't forgotten by people around the world - by [those] who have the same goal," says Boughanim. "The struggle [is] of the forces of light against those of darkness."
Appearing briefly in Paris this week, British author Salman Rushdie compared his life under an Iranian death sentence to the predicament of Algeria's thinkers.