Algeria Agonistes

Few countries have a darker recent history than Algeria. The country has been in the grip of insurrection since 1992, when the Army called off elections that appeared likely to install a government headed by an Islamic party, the National Salvation Front (FIS). Some 60,000 Algerians have been killed in the ensuing conflict, which has been marked by terrible acts of violence on the part of both fundamentalist guerrillas and the military.

Parliamentary elections held last week offered some hope, at least, of brightening the long night of conflict. But while they were multiparty and relatively peaceful, the outcome was largely foreordained. The newly formed National Democratic Rally, which backs President Liamine Zeroual, a former general, took the largest number of seats in parliament. Through coalitions with other secular parties, it will rule - though the real power is firmly in the president's hands.

A couple of moderate Islamic parties were allowed to run and won a significant block of seats. The FIS, however, remains banned and its leaders jailed. Resentment, and militancy, remain deep-set. Some kind of dialogue between the Zeroual government and the banned Islamists is needed to reduce the country's tensions.

For the moment, that appears un-likely. Any move toward reconciliation could enrage the Army. And it's by no means clear that the other side has a spirit of compromise either.

Outside pressure could be brought to bear, since Algeria's economic lifeline is its exports of oil and gas. But the country that could exert the most influence, former colonial ruler France, has backed the status quo, anxious to avoid anything that could heighten the flow of people out of Algeria in its direction.

The current climate of violence is only marginally eased by the electoral trappings of democracy minus much of its substance. The situation demands widened political participation and a much deeper appreciation, on all sides, of the demands of democracy.

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