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ALGERIA : Muslim Unrest, Economic Woes Keep Tension High

February 22, 1992|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALGIERS — The streets of the Algerian capital are quiet these days. For most of the week, people go to work, or go to the bakery, or stop by a restaurant for lunch. On Fridays, the day of high prayers, the streets are quiet because they are occupied by the army and riot police. The local press has come to call these days "The Fridays of Living Dangerously."

More than a month after the army took over the government in Algeria, the country remains in a precarious state of no war, no peace. Emissaries have been dispatched around the world to proclaim that democracy remains safe, while the Islamic party that won the most recent elections has seen thousands of its followers trucked off to prison camps in the Sahara.

The question many Algerians are asking is: How can the country claim to be a multi-party democracy when elections have been suspended? And when will the precarious standoff between small groups of Muslim militants and tense cadres of police and soldiers turn truly violent?

Algeria has put out the message to suspicious Western governments that it needs their economic aid to help fend off the crisis that is fueling the Muslim fundamentalist fervor here. Yet the message coming back from many quarters is that the new five-member government installed after President Chadli Bendjedid's forced resignation Jan. 11 shows few signs of having any more political will than the last regime did when it comes to dismantling Algeria's stagnant, state-run economy.

Announcing the goals of a new economic plan to be unveiled soon, Mohamed Boudiaf, president of the five-member High Committee of State, emphasized that public sector industries would be nurtured and the country would be protected from the "dangers" of "wild capitalism."

Economists here wonder how Algeria can make the difficult transition to a market economy when it is afraid to even say it wants to.

"I think the rhetoric we're seeing now is what we've seen all along," said one Western analyst. "If this is their vision of the future, if this is all the enthusiasm they can muster for the course, then how can you expect the public to come along? And this leaves the ground open for the Islamic Salvation Front, which promises heaven on Earth."

The front, which the new regime has moved to ban, claims that 14,000 of its supporters were arrested last week, many of them moved to detention camps in the empty desert in the south.

The government admits to holding 5,000 in detention camps.

Boudiaf has indicated that he does not expect new elections before the end of 1993, but he and other officials emphasize that it's only the electoral process, and not democracy, that has been halted.

Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi set out last week for Portugal, which chairs the European Economic Community, and the Persian Gulf.

"We need help from our friends and partners," said one government official. "It's not enough for them to sit back and say, 'Let's wait and see, and first you must follow the democratic process.' Of course, we want to follow the democratic process. But first this government must show some economic benefit. If not, it will lose credibility, and there could be civil war."

The European Community has pledged to help, with the caveat that human rights must be respected. But the message also is coming back loud and clear that Algeria must move to develop its own industries.

"This country has to pay its way in the world," said one Western envoy. ". . . You can rely on foreign loans and credits for a while, but that's not enough."

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