**Algerian crisis worries the western powers**
The prolonged crisis in Algeria, and the inability of the army-backed regime of President Liamine Zeroual to "exterminate" an Islamic fundamentalist guerrilla rebellion, as it has pledged to do, is causing increasing concern among western powers for which the North African country has economic and strategic importance. Moves toward intervention from outside, to bring about a negotiated settlement, have begun to develop. At this point, who it would benefit is not certain.
Algeria has massive reserves of oil and gas, in which western companies have continued to invest on a large scale and which are being brought into production under contract with the state energy monopoly, Sonatrach, regardless of the warfare in the country. As it happens, the oil and gas are in the distant southern part of Algeria, with vast desert separating it from the heavily-populated northern coastal strip where the armed struggle is taking place. Well-guarded by the Algerian army, the producing areas are relatively secure from attack by the fundamentalists who lack the logistical means to raid across the desert where they'd be vulnerable to air attack.
However, while big transnational companies may be flocking to invest in the resources of the south, at a time when oil prices are high, the embattled north has major attraction for globalizing western commercial and industrial interests. The vast proportion of the Algerian population of 30 million that it contains embodies, in transnational eyes, virtually a virgin market, ready for exploitation.
Algeria imports almost all that it consumes, chiefly using the oil and gas earnings that account for over 95 percent of foreign exchange revenues. Little manufacturing industry has developed in what has been a relatively closed economy more than 60 percent dominated by the public sector. Under the impact of economic stagnation that had been one of the main causes of the fundamentalists' appeal, and of the strains produced by civil war conditions, that control is being broken down. Reaching for support, the Algerian government has submitted to terms of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which serve the interests of the transnationals.
In exchange for having a burdensome foreign debt eased and rescheduled, the Zeroual government agreed in 1994 to customary IMF and World Bank demands for "economic liberalization" and "structural adjustment," in particular a privatization program in which public sector enterprises are being sold off to private (especially foreign) bidders. Last August an initial list of 70 enterprises was put up for sale.
Unfortunately, the acute instability caused by the continued brutal armed struggle methods of the fundamentalists and savage repression by government security forces have discouraged potential investors. Many have come to have one-day tours of Algiers or other industrial sites in armored cars, but hesitating to sign contracts. Western calls for an end to the murderous civil war have therefore been heard.
What that end might be is problematical. The extremist Armed Islamic Group (GIA) which broke away from the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which was deprived of a 1991 election victory and launched the armed struggle as a result, has a far-out anti-western, anti-foreign line, murdering foreigners whom it has ordered out of the country. This is not necessarily an ideological fundamentalist position. That the big oil companies have made their major investment stake in Algeria in spite of the possibility of an Islamic fundamentalist victory indicates that such an outcome is not greatly to be feared.
U.S. concern for Algeria's future was shown in a recent report published by the California-based Rand Corporation. This had been commissioned by the U.S. army and was written by a former CIA officer operating in the Middle east, Graham Fuller. Its analysis concluded that the fundamentalists would win out and gain power eventually, either "through chaos, violence, the collapse of the government and social revolution," or a deal between the army and the FIS, or free elections in which the FIS would participate.
The Rand report said that the free election course was the most desirable. It would enable workable western relations with a fundamentalist regime while violent or temporizing denouements would bring radical extremists to power. This U.S. position, in other words, is opposed to the present Zeroual government's policy of banning the FIS and other opposition parties, and favors a policy of fostering relations with the relatively more moderate fundamentalists.
Actually, from the very beginning of the FIS revolt there have been reports of U.S. State Department and CIA contacts with the Algerian fundamentalists. A leading spokesman of the FIS in exile, Anwar Khadem, lives in the U.S., based in Washington. He issues statements denouncing atrocities committed by the extremist GIA. On Jan. 24 an intriguing new sign of Algerian contacts with the U.S. emerged in a call by the leader of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), Hocine Ait Ahmad, for President Bill Clinton to appoint a mediator to help resolve the Algerian conflict.
The U.S. line of thinking matches that of the other western powers which fear that an extremist victory in Algeria would incite similar revolts across North Africa where fundamentalist movements are active in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, with Sudan a particular base. At the same time, the fundamentalist tendency in some countries where it has won control or a substantial share of power has been toward moderation.
In Turkey the fundamentalist Refah (Welfare) Party became the majority party in the last election, its leader, Erbaken, assuming the prime ministership, but it has been relatively restrained about imposing its sharia program. In Iran the rule of the fundamentalist ayatollahs is being toned down, including the anti-western attitudes, by a growth of capitalism and bourgeois forces. For the west and its transnationals accommodation rather than confrontation with Islamic movements is seen to pay off.
On Jan. 28, despite the Algerian government's demand that there be no outside intervention in its affairs, Italy's deputy foreign minister Piero Passino called on the European Union to take the initiative in halting the civil war crisis. When the Zeroual government protested, Passino denied an intention to mediate or interfere in Algeria and said he just wanted to "isolate terrorism" but his proposal for "an initiative which restores rights, freedom and democracy" will undoubtedly be a feature of the forthcoming EU negotiations with Algeria for an economic relations agreement.
The Chirac government in France is the main supporter of the Zeroual regime but is extremely cautious about expressing it publicly, for fear of a fundamentalist backlash from among the million or more Algerian immigrants in France (numerous bombings against the French policy have aready occurred in French cities, traced to the GIA). However, at the end of January leaders of opposition parties broke ranks with the cautious line.
Lionel Jospin, the Socialist leader, declared that France should not "remain silent nor give the impression that it is an unconditional supporter of the Algerian regime." Former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing went further, saying that all parties that took part in the 1991 election should be allowed to compete in the parliamentary election scheduled by Zeroual for the end of May, which means inclusion of the FIS.
In general, all the European calls for democratic rights in Algeria, together with the U.S. assessment, show readiness to accept at least the moderate wing of the FIS. It must be said, however, that a free election in Algeria would not be certain to yield a repeat of the FIS victory in 1991. In divided Algeria there has been widespread revulsion against the type of struggle waged by the fundamentalists, with its barbarities and intolerance, and the more progressive of the secular parties may have their support increased as a consequence.
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