THE nations of the Middle East and North Africa, striving for
peace and economic integration, are watching helplessly as the
conflict in Algeria descends into civil war.
Algeria has been wracked by violence since the government
canceled the country's first multiparty legislative elections in
January 1992. The Islamists' main party, the Islamic Salvation
Front (FIS), finished first in the election's initial round of
voting and was set to win a wide majority in the parliament when
military-backed powers took control of the government and banned
Since then, the power struggle between the French-backed
military, which has a weak political arm, and Islamic militants has
escalated to dangerous heights.
"I think the role of the military will soon become more overt,
and it will effectively take over the government," says Mamoun
Fandy, a political scientist at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids,
"This will make the situation even worse than it is now and
make a violent take-over by the Islamists more achievable than ever
before," says Mr. Fandy, an Egyptian who lives in the United
It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 people have died
in the insurgency. The intensity of fighting - and deaths - has
risen dramatically during the past few weeks as tensions have
Extreme violence on both sides, and the targeting of journalists
by Islamic extremists, has caused most foreigners and many Algerian
intellectuals and journalists to flee. At least 28 journalists -
and 69 foreigners - have been killed. An estimated 200 Algerian
journalists, and almost all foreign journalists, have left.
In November, the government closed five newspapers on the
grounds that their reporting aided Islamic insurgents of the
Islamic Salvation Army and the Armed Islamic Group, which are
fighting for an Islamic state in Algeria.
Algerian President Liamine Zeroual, backed by France, has
promised elections by the end of 1995 but the security situation
has already unravelled to such a degree that diplomats say a ballot
would have little meaning.
France has a long colonial history with Algeria. It annexed
Algeria in 1842, retaining control over it until 1962. When
Islamists came close to gaining power in 1989, possibly spurring a
massive migration of Algerians to France and threatening its
crucial oil and gas contracts, France began backing the military
"As long as France is able to intervene on the present basis,
the situation in Algeria will deteriorate," says Hugh Roberts, a
researcher for the Geopolitics and International Boundaries
Research Center at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.
Mr. Roberts adds that US rhetoric on Algeria reflects a more
rational approach, but there is little follow-through action. The
US has been urging the Algerian government to seek a compromise
solution with the relatively moderate FIS, but a brief dialogue
initiated by President Zeroual in September soon broke down.
Roberts says the problem in getting a dialogue going between the
parties in Algeria did not lie with the opposition parties, which
were able to find considerable common ground at a November meeting
in Rome. It lay with the hard-line military faction of the
government, led by Army Chief of Staff Muhammed Lamari, which has
received paramilitary support from France.
The Rome meeting took place after a Roman Catholic peace group
invited the government and opposition groups to negotiate their
differences. Members from 12 Algerian opposition groups met with
mediators, but the government boycotted the meeting.
Western intelligence sources have confirmed recent deliveries of
French helicopters and night-sight equipment to the Zeroual regime. …