Algerian reshuffle aims to quell crisis




By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 29 December 1999

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s president, has placed economic reform at the heart of the government’s peace efforts, by appointing technocrats to key posts amid rising violence, which has left 50 people dead in the past week.

In a move seen by some analysts as strengthening Mr Bouteflika’s position, his close adviser, Ahmed Benbitour was appointed prime minister in a long-awaited reshuffle on December 24.

“The government must consolidate national reconciliation and take into consideration the legal, economic and social aspects to bring about a comprehensive solution to the crisis,” Mr Bouteflika said after the appointment of the cabinet. However, key posts remain in the hands of members of the former government who have close ties to Mr Bouteflika and the traditional political establishment.

The new government includes representatives from four parties, including the Islamist-oriented Nahda and the strongly anti-Islamist Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), which were not represented in the previous government.

However, both Nahda and the RCD have drawn increasingly close to the president since his election last April.

Nahda’s inclusion is not widely regarded as reflecting a broadening of the political arena to include the broader Islamist bloc, whose conflict with the government has left 100,000 people dead since 1992.

“Is it really his government or an entente between the president and other forces who remain powerful in the country?” said an Algiers lawyer yesterday, referring to the army’s strong influence on political decision-making.

“It’s the same regime with another face. The hope of a change is disappearing and the president is losing the initiative. He was too optimistic about bringing real change, and is now running things to stay in power from day to day,” he said.

Since 1992, when the Algerian army cancelled the second round of elections which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was expected to win, virulent anti-Islamist sentiments within the military have prevented tentative moves towards a political accommodation with the FIS.

Last July, Mr Bouteflika offered an amnesty to Islamist militants who laid down their weapons, in an effort to create “civil concord” as a way out of the crisis. The amnesty expires on January 13, without having brought an end to the violence.

Nor has the amnesty created more favourable conditions for a political solution, particularly since the assassination last month of Abdelkader Hachani, an FIS leader, who had promoted dialogue with the authorities.

“There are many currents represented in the government, but we need more,” Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the former president of the national assembly, who now leads the Committee for Peace and National Reconciliation, said yesterday. “Reconciliation should have a more political character, for which it is necessary to go towards the real representation of the real currents that are part of Algerian society,” he said.

© Financial Times