Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
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Bouteflika's 'moment of national destiny'

By Nasr El-Qaffas

More than 17.5 million Algerians are expected to vote yes or no today to the question "are you for or against the president's moves to realise peace and civil concord?" The "civil reconciliation law" was proposed by President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika shortly after he took office following controversial elections in mid-April.

The moves in question are contained in a law promulgated in late July, and already passed by parliament, which grants partial amnesty to Islamist militants not guilty of murder or rape. Perpetrators of murder will receive lighter sentences if they give themselves up to the authorities. The death penalty is also to be scrapped under the law.

To the surprise of many observers, Bouteflika, a former foreign minister under Algeria's charismatic leader Houari Boumedienne, has managed in a few months to amass popular support among Algerians. He has addressed both his people and the outside world in a new, credible vocabulary. According to one Algerian analyst, "He is the first Algerian president to speak like an opposition leader, criticising the state and its institutions, previously fraudulent elections, the constitution and the people for not working hard enough and for depending on the state for all services."

This has raised hopes that the north African Arab country might return to peace and security after seven years of shocking and incomprehensible violence in which more than 100,000 people have been killed. Bloodshed started in early 1992 after the army intervened to cancel the results of the first round of parliamentary elections clearly won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

Bouteflika's takeover of the presidency gave a strong boost to a FIS initiative of late 1997 to halt the violence made by FIS. According to reports in the Algerian press, FIS militants are now helping security forces in tracking the more hardline armed opposition such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

Algeria In order to express their opposition to the reconciliation law, the GIA led by Antar Zoubari and another extremist armed group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat led by Hassan Hatab, have escalated their attacks against civilians in recent weeks. But even those attacks have failed to lessen the mood of change and hope of reconciliation which prevails in Algeria.

Bouteflika has ruled out a general amnesty. "It is not easy to ask the families of victims to exercise the same level of forgiveness as that of the state," he said. Some of those families have formed a national committee "against forgetting treason". But the president has gained the support of others, including the widow of the Algerian Workers' Federation leader, Abdel-Haq Bin-Hammouda, who was shot dead by suspected GIA militants in 1995.

Other previously significant opponents of any reconciliation with Islamists -- known in Algeria as "eradicators" -- have announced their support for Bouteflika's law. Both Said Saadi, leader of the Berber-backed Rally for Culture and Democracy and former Algerian prime minister Reda Malek now stand in the same camp in support of the law with FIS leader Abbasi Madani and other key FIS figures who for years orchestrated attacks against the Algerian army.

Algeria's state television has recently been broadcasting interviews with armed militants who decided to give themselves up to the authorities to benefit from the new law. The young men, with long beards and dressed in Afghani style, say they gave themselves up, "because we trust Bouteflika".

Calling for the massive participation of the people, Bouteflika has hailed the referendum as "a moment of national destiny". Banners are already hanging in many roads, calling for a yes-vote. "Civil reconciliation = an end to the crisis," read one banner.

The Algerian president, during his tour of Algerian cities to campaign for the law, stressed that reconciliation alone was not enough. Rather, it had to be accompanied by economic reform to create jobs for millions of unemployed young Algerians, a fight against corruption and intense efforts to restore Algeria's regional and international position.

Since taking office, Bouteflika has visited many countries. He has forced France to withdraw its reservations over the legitimacy of his election by expressing a desire to develop ties with the US. In July Algiers hosted the Organisation of African Union (OAU) summit meeting. The high turnout of African leaders to attend the meeting was a clear message of support to Bouteflika and his effort to restore peace in Algeria.

To demonstrate his intention to fight corruption, two weeks ago Bouteflika sacked 22 governors -- representing nearly half of the country's 46 provinces. Probably in an attempt to calm other corrupt top officials, the Algerian president indicated that those removed would not be prosecuted.

Opposition to the law is led by the six candidates who pulled out of the running 24 hours before the April presidential race, claiming the army had already given Bouteflika the presidency. They see the law as a mechanism for the Algerian leader to bolster his legitimacy. Others fear that if the referendum gives Bouteflika a big boost, it will encourage him to ignore the pro-establishment political parties that supported him during April's presidential race, namely the National Democratic Rally (RND) and the National Liberation Front (FLN).

Judging by Bouteflika's record so far, more surprises can be expected. But he insists that the path to change has begun and that there can be no turning back.

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