Amnesty law raises faint hope of first steps to end Algeria's civil war


When Algerian generals cancelled the country's first democratic elections in January 1992, few Algerians realised that they were witnessing the beginning of a long civil war.

Seven and a half years later, three months after the "election" of the country's first civilian president, a faint optimism is spreading that Algerians may one day look back on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's July 1999 amnesty law as the beginning of the end of their war.

Mr Bouteflika is a consummate diplomat, an artist of illusion. His 16-year stint as Algeria's foreign minister marked the glory years of Houari Boumedienne's rule, when Algiers commanded respect in the world. Mr Bouteflika then embarked on a very profitable business career, and was only brought out of semi-retirement by the Algerian generals to succeed Gen Liamine Zeroual. Six other candidates withdrew from the April 15th election this year, enabling him to be "elected" unchallenged. He hopes his promise of a referendum on a law on "national reconciliation" could give him the political legitimacy he failed to obtain in April.

For the first months of Mr Bouteflika's rule, it appeared that Algeria would lumber on in the same, deadly statement between the military and Islamic fundamentalists that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Algerians. One of the first signs of change was his participation in an economic conference in Switzerland at the end of June. Mr Bouteflika acknowledged the 100,000 death toll - long denied by the government - and admitted that the army's cancellation of elections had "done violence" to the country.

In just a few weeks, Mr Bouteflika has achieved a dramatic improvement in Algeria's relations with Morocco and with France, and most of all between the Algiers government and the Islamists who took up arms against it in 1992. When he announced an amnesty law on June 29th, the Algerian leader said that "the struggle against terrorism cannot be limited to fighting terrorist activity, but also aims to eliminate the causes and sources of frustration". A chief source of frustration in Algeria is the military's domination of political life; can Mr Bouteflika shake free of the generals?

That he has moved so far shows that the Arabo-Islamisant faction in the military has at least temporarily prevailed over the "eradicators".

Opposition politicians were pilloried for suggesting much the same thing at the Sant'Egidio conference in Rome in 1995. It took time for the necessity of dialogue with the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to sink in. The armed wing of the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) announced it was laying down its weapons on June 6th and Sheikh Abassi Madani, the FIS leader living under house arrest in Algiers, has called upon other Islamist groups "to join in peace". Mr Bouteflika has said he would like to improve prison conditions for Sheikh Ali Benhadj, the most charismatic and hardline FIS leader.

The news is somewhat misleading. The AIS negotiated a truce with the Algerian army in 1997 and its guerrillas were supposed to benefit from an amnesty law then. The crucial - and as yet unanswered - question is whether the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), responsible for the worst atrocities of the war, is beaten or willing to end the conflict. Several people were killed by a bomb on a beach near Algiers last weekend, a cruel reminder that violence has not entirely subsided.