- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

PARIS Algerians thought democracy was at their doorstep a decade ago. Then the dream was crushed.

The country's first multiparty legislative elections were to crown the end of three decades of single-party rule and stand as a rare example of democracy in the Arab world.

But things did not go as planned. The Islamic Salvation Front, known as the FIS, a fledgling Muslim fundamentalist party, overwhelmingly won the first round of voting. Fear took hold, and in January 1992, the army canceled the final round.

Authorities attributed the Islamic victory to low voter turnout and behind-the-scenes trickery by the party. "We were ready to do anything to stop an election that was a masquerade," said now-retired Gen. Khaled Nezzar, then defense minister.

[The Algerian government announced Monday that parliamentary elections will be held May 30 and pledged a free and fair ballot, Reuters news agency and Agence France-Presse said, quoting the official Algerian news agency APS.

["President (Abdelaziz) Bouteflika vowed to uphold the respect of a fair poll and guarantee freedom of choice for the voters," APS said.

[The current parliament was elected in 1997 for a five-year term. Reuters said moderate centrist Islamists and secular opposition groups have representatives in the current 380-seat lower house, which is dominated by government supporters. The members of the upper house of parliament, the Council of the Nation, are picked from elected local authorities or appointed by the president.]

The decision to cancel the 1992 runoff vote unleashed violence by Islamic militants. It snowballed into a bloody insurgency by extremists that continues today.

But 10 years later, Gen. Nezzar says he has no regrets.

"To go to the second round was to guarantee the death of a budding democracy and the state," he told the Algerian newspaper Le Matin in a special issue marking the 10th anniversary of the violence.

Former Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, one of five officials who signed the 1992 cancellation decree, concurred.

"The stakes were the survival of Algeria, because it would have been finished if the Islamists took power," Mr. Ghozali told the French newspaper Le Monde.

However, Chadli Bendjedid, who was ousted as president just before the second round was aborted, says the voting should have continued.

"We should have left things alone and acknowledged our error," he told Le Matin. "We should have had confidence in the future, and preserved the democracy for future generations. Time would have unmasked the FIS."

And what about the next election? "If it … happens, the Islamic forces will win again," Mr. Ghozali told Le Monde. "The gap between the state and the citizen has not stopped growing."

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