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Algeria President Resigns in Crisis : North Africa: Election victories of Islamic fundamentalists believed behind Chadli Bendjedid’s move. Runoff vote likely to be canceled, sources say.

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid resigned Saturday, and army vehicles began moving into the streets of the capital days before Islamic fundamentalists appeared certain to sweep national runoff elections and lay the groundwork for the Muslim world’s first elected Islamic republic.

As small groups of shouting fundamentalists began moving toward Algiers’ main square Saturday evening, truckloads of army troops took up positions around government ministry buildings and along main boulevards. Long lines began forming at gas stations as citizens uneasily prepared for an uncertain future.

Algerian Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali said Saturday night that he had ordered the army to deploy to safeguard the country immediately after hearing of Bendjedid’s resignation.

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“I resign as of today as president of the republic,” Bendjedid, the chief architect of Algeria’s move toward democratic reforms, announced on television Saturday evening. “This is not an escape from my responsibilities, but it comes from the difficulties . . . that we are experiencing. This is in the interest of the stability of the country.”

The latest developments threatened to place the country under martial law for the second time this year and cast serious doubts on whether Algeria’s experiment with democracy, the most vigorous ever attempted in the Arab world, would proceed.

Sources close to the government, reached by telephone in Algiers, said it is likely that Thursday’s runoff elections will be canceled and replaced with balloting to select a new president within the next several months.

“This is the end of the democracy experiment,” said an Arab military official in Algiers. “The only hope to keep the democracy process was to keep Chadli in place. The end, in my opinion, will be very sad.”

But Algerian government officials characterized the move as an attempt to head off civil conflict between Muslim fundamentalists and an increasingly strident middle class, which took to the streets in protest after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) captured 188 of the 232 parliamentary seats won outright during initial balloting Dec. 26. Thursday’s runoff would likely have guaranteed them a majority in the National Assembly.

“With these demonstrations of the (anti-fundamentalist) democrats, there was a risk to see the country divided into two blocs,” a Foreign Ministry official said in a telephone interview. “It was too dangerous, and a lot of parties here were saying we should not go to the next round (of elections) because it will be dangerous if the (fundamentalists) take power.”

Bendjedid, he said, “decided to stop all the process by announcing his resignation, which means we have a whole new situation.”

Other sources said Bendjedid’s resignation apparently followed a standoff with the country’s Constitutional Council, backed by the army, which was reportedly preparing to invalidate several of the Islamic electoral victories in response to claims that the fundamentalists intimidated voters and improperly influenced ballots cast by illiterate voters.

Bendjedid, the sources said, was of the opinion that it was inadvisable to try to halt the Islamic tide by nullifying election results.

“There was pressure to cancel a lot of places from the FIS. The president refused, and according to that, he resigned,” said an Arab diplomat in the Algerian capital.

Bendjedid’s resignation leaves the seven-member Constitutional Council, a panel of jurists and professors which acts as the country’s supreme court, in charge. Abdelmalek Benhabyles, president of the council, was named head of an interim government, with 45 days to organize an election for a new president.

The move did not precisely follow the constitution, which calls for the Speaker of the National Assembly to replace the president. It prompted speculation that leaders of Algeria’s old ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and the army, fearing almost certain defeat by the fundamentalists, had orchestrated a last-minute “constitutional coup d'etat.

Bendjedid, 63, has been at odds with the old-guard leaders of the FLN since he first opened the way for democratic and economic reforms in Algeria following the bloody riots of October, 1988, that left at least 150 dead.

After more than three decades of one-party rule after independence from France in 1962, Algeria suddenly had 54 legal political parties, dozens of independent daily newspapers and its first free municipal and national elections. Old state-run economic enterprises began tentatively opening the door to the private sector, most recently with the government’s controversial move a few months ago to open up oil exploration to private companies.

Many FLN leaders have been reluctant to give up traditional power bases, and they have in recent months shared a growing sense of alarm with anti-FLN democratic reformists who fear that all the progress toward democracy in Algeria is about to be undone if Muslim fundamentalists come to power.

The Islamic Front, whose key leaders remain in prison, has said it will declare an Islamic state in Algeria, ban the sale of alcohol and segregate men and women in public life. It has appealed strongly to the huge numbers of young urban Algerians who have found themselves without jobs, housing or marriage opportunities in the dismal economic climate.

The first-round election results shocked FLN officials, who had predicted that the fundamentalists would gain no more than 30% of the vote. Instead, the FIS won 188 seats outright is the 430-seat National Assembly, just 28 short of a majority. It had been expected to win most of the 199 seats for which no one received a first-round majority during Thursday’s runoff. The FLN won only 16 seats outright during the first round.

Anti-Islamic sentiment had been building in the days since the first round, with thousands of supporters of the independent, pro-democracy Socialist Forces Front massing in the streets last week. Newspapers demanded that “ill-gotten” Muslim election wins be reversed. “Tens of thousands of Algerians are organizing themselves to reject the inevitability of a FIS state built on rigged elections,” Le Matin newspaper said in an editorial last week.

But one of the keys to Algeria’s democratic future has long been the presidency.

Bendjedid, a former army officer who took power after the death of former President Houari Boumedienne in 1979, until now had resisted stepping down, declaring before the first round of elections that he would remain in power until the end of his term in 1993, if necessary, to assure the continued stability of the country.

The role of the army has been the big question mark throughout the democratic process. Army leaders insisted from the beginning that they would have no role except to protect the constitution.

But the army was drawn into the fray last June when fundamentalists took to the streets in a general strike that turned violent. Army tanks moved into the streets, and a bloody crackdown was followed by a three-month state of siege over the summer, which was lifted to make way for the autumn election campaign.

Following the Islamic victory in the Dec. 26 balloting, some pro-Western Algerians privately expressed hopes that the army would move in once again to hold the fundamentalists at bay. But military sources said the army was reluctant to intervene, in part because two distasteful experiences of firing on its own citizens, mostly young people, had affected morale. There were also said to be fears that, as in Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, it might prove impossible to hold back the tide of popular opinion.

Diplomats in the Algerian capital said there had so far been no clashes with the military and no declaration of a new state of siege or martial law.

The army by late Saturday was reported to have moved into the power stations around Algiers, and the presidential guard had taken up positions around the presidential palace.

According to a French television correspondent, Morad Ait Habbouche in Algiers, public reaction in the capital Saturday night was “surprise and stupefaction.”

Algeria has a standing army of 170,000 with senior officers who fought in the armed struggle for independence from France that ended in 1962. The military leaders, proud of their participation in the war of liberation against France, chafe at talk by the fundamentalists of a new revolution that will begin with their election.


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