Algeria Conference Reveals Power Base Of Army, Islamists

ALGERIA'S ``national conference of consensus'' held this week did not name a new president for the troubled North African nation as anticipated. But the two-day conference in Algiers, which ended Wednesday, did reveal unwittingly the two powers - one uncharacteristically public about its presence, the other glaringly absent - that will determine whether Algeria can pull back from its destructive descent.

One is the Army, the country's true power that until now has preferred to stand behind the cover of civilian leadership. The other is the outlawed, radical Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

``The Islamists are the clear winners of this exercise, since the one thing this conference proved is that politically, a frank presence of the FIS is becoming more and more obligatory,'' says a political scientist in Oran, Algeria. ``If there is to be a national dialogue, it will have to pass by the Islamists.''

The conference, which was to have designated a new president and charted a return to multiparty elections in three years, took place despite the absence of all of the country's principal political parties. The FIS, whose leaders are either in jail, hiding, or exile, refused to take part in any public activity that might legitimize the current regime. Most other parties said any gathering without the FIS would be a futile exercise and a retreat from the country's democratic aspirations.

But the conference also revealed an Army increasingly open about its hold on power. The 1,300 delegates were liberally sprinkled with both active and retired Army officers, several of whom are among the most mentioned candidates for president.

The Army's intent, according to some observers, is to reassure a public traumatized by two years of conflict between the state and underground Islamist groups - violence that has left more than 3,500 Algerians dead - that the Army is ready to take full charge if necessary.

But the military faces clear dangers in this strategy, others say. The Army is the one institution considered by much of the public to be ``above the fray'' of Algeria's political and economic decline and an impartial defender of what remains a very nationalist country. But because the Army derives much of its legitimacy from that semblance of impartiality, these observers say, it would be weakened by openly taking sides in a struggle between proponents of a democratic state and those for an Islamic regime.

THE military-backed High State Council, which has ruled the country since multiparty elections were abruptly cancelled in 1992, had already fingered former Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika as president for a three-year transition period to new elections. Mr. Bouteflika was to have been ``legitimized'' by the national conference Wednesday, but he suddenly refused the appointment - apparently following disagreement with military leaders over how much power he would have.

The search for a new president must conclude by Jan. 31, when the High State Council's existence ends. The man chosen will be a clear hint at how far the Army intends to go in negotiating with the Islamists for an end to the country's civil strife.

The Army is now believed by many observers to be ready to lead a dialogue with the FIS - but on the condition that it remain the chief arbiter. Even though the FIS does not consider the Army its arch enemy - numerous officers, especially of junior ranking, are known to be sympathetic to the FIS political program for Algeria - that may nevertheless be a condition it refuses to accept.

On the other hand, one of the conditions the Islamists are understood to be holding for negotiations to take place is that the Army leaders who halted the electoral process in 1992, when it became clear the FIS would win the elections, be retired from public life. So far that demand has been refused.

Most observers see an Army-FIS dialogue as the last fire wall before threatening civil war. ``Just the hint that some initial talks have taken place was enough to reduce terrorist acts,'' says one Algerian. ``If the talking stops, the situation appears lost.''

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