ALGIERS — Amid reports that the government is preparing to impose a state of emergency, Islamic fundamentalists raised the stakes in the battle for control of Algeria on Monday by urging their militants to "prepare for all eventualities to save the country."
As key politicians and religious leaders at the mosques pleaded for calm and warned of the danger of civil war, the Islamic Salvation Front denounced the interim government's order scrapping parliamentary elections a day after taking over control of the country from President Chadli Bendjedid, who resigned.
"Faced with this serious situation, it is not permitted for any citizen to remain neutral," the Islamic Front proclaimed. "We call on veteran fighters, thinkers, religious leaders, senior army officers and soldiers, sons of the martyrs, social leaders and all who love Algeria to take a stand against this giant of power."
Islamic fundamentalists, who were set to capture a large majority of Parliament in Algeria's first multi-party elections had second-round balloting proceeded as scheduled Thursday, stopped short of calling their militants into the streets. Indeed, they offered no prescriptions for combatting the army's move to scrap the elections.
But their strident tone set the stage for conflict with the military-backed government, which is reported ready to outlaw the Islamic party if the political debate turns violent, as it has done twice before in the past three years.
Fundamentalist leaders are said to be deeply divided over how to respond to the crisis, facing the possibility of losing their sanction as a political entity if they contest the government and their legitimacy with the populace if they do not.
"They're doomed if they fight, and they're doomed if they give in, so they figure they may as well fight," said one analyst in the Algerian capital after the Islamic Front's declaration.
Prayer leaders at the mosques appealed for calm, and former revolutionary war hero Hocine Ait Ahmed, whose secular, pro-democracy Socialist Forces Front won more than half a million votes in the first round of balloting Dec. 26, urged Islamic leaders to "control their troops and not engage in operations which risk opening the door on civil war."
There was little sign of rising tension in the streets, where Algerians streamed to work and into the sparsely stocked shops seemingly oblivious to the government crisis--except for the newsstands, which sold out their stocks shortly after opening in the morning.
But diplomats have confirmed reports by the fundamentalists of large movements of army troops into Algiers during the last week; tanks and armored personnel carriers were scattered at the entrances of key government buildings.
There were unconfirmed reports that the government is preparing to impose a state of emergency, which would permit imposition of curfews and travel restrictions. But there were no signs of such a declaration by late Monday, and some diplomats said that a new law adopted last month already gives the army broad powers to intervene in the event of civil disturbances.
Some diplomats and government officials predicted that the fundamentalists would maintain a low profile during the next several weeks in an attempt to patch together a political solution.
A Foreign Ministry official said he expects contacts over the next few weeks among the army, the Islamic Front, the old ruling National Liberation Front and the Socialist Forces Front to arrive at a compromise slate of candidates for a new presidential election. That would clear the way for new legislative elections later.
"The contacts will be very secret. After that, you will see one or two candidates on whom everyone can agree," the official said, adding that the Islamic Front "has no choice," and "must accept to make some compromise with the army, or it will disappear."
But such a scenario assumes that moderates continue to exercise sway over the leadership of the Islamic Front and that the moderates are willing to accept a non-Islamic presidential candidate at a moment when the Islamic party has demonstrated it can capture more than two-thirds of the National Assembly.
Philosophy Prof. Abassi Madani and preacher Ali Belhaj, the Islamic Front's two most strident leaders, remain in prison after a nationwide strike they called last May that led to a bloody state of siege in June.
Abdelkadir Hachani, the Islamic Front's acting leader, is considered a moderate. But he must answer to a shadowy, little-known governing council that includes fundamentalists who have bitterly opposed even joining the electoral process.
Armed militants not believed to be directly connected to the Islamic Front already have been involved in at least three recent attacks in the south of Algeria, one of which led to the death of two border guards.