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Algeria Sees a Glint of Hope : Historic election could lead to an end of the nation’s costly civil war

More than 100,000 Algerians died in the eight years of fighting that led to their country’s independence from France in 1962. But 50,000 already have perished in the vicious civil war that began in 1992 after the country’s military rulers canceled an election that the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) seemed poised to win.

Last week, in the first contested presidential election in Algeria’s history, voters turned out in large numbers to endorse Liamine Zeroual, whom the military installed in the office in 1994.

This week, the FIS said it was prepared to negotiate a settlement of the three-year conflict with Zeroual. The FIS doesn’t speak for all the militant fundamentalists, but its expressed interest in ending the fighting--one shared by the mass of Algeria’s nearly 30 million people-- deserves to be explored, for it could mark a turning point in a land that is desperately in need of peace, representative government and economic development.

Zeroual took 61% of the vote in a contest most foreign observers say was fair. Though the FIS and other radical Muslim parties were banned, a more moderate fundamentalist candidate won 25% of the vote. The result allows Zeroual to claim a political legitimacy unique in a country that for three decades has known only authoritarian, one-party rule. The two big questions now are whether the FIS is sincere about wanting to end the conflict, and whether the generals who have long pulled strings behind the scenes will in fact let Zeroual seek a peaceful solution.

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Algeria, with a population that has tripled since independence, desperately needs stability and an end to the inept economic policies that have produced mass unemployment, food and housing shortages and a staggering foreign debt. The United States has joined with France --still the most influential foreign power in Algeria--to urge negotiations to end the conflict and establish the conditions for pluralist government. Without such a political shift it’s likely that Algeria’s tragic and costly civil war will rage on.


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