Algeria takes a backward step

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THE NEWLY-elected president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is not a physically impressive man, though you would not have realised this from the logo chosen by the Arab News Network, which gave him unnaturally elongated shoulders.

Mr Bouteflika's political agenda is equally uninspiring, but it seems that much of the Algerian public is resigned, at the end of an eventful week, to taking one step back for every two steps forward on the road to multi-party democracy.

The fear of freedom is understandable. Each candidate in an Algerian presidential election must collect 75,000 signatures in support of their candidacy. By coincidence, this is approximately the same number of people estimated to have been killed in the violence unleashed after the army intervened seven years ago to halt what would have been the first multi- party elections since independence.

As the international press dispersed this weekend, it left behind an Algerian public sadder, and perhaps wiser, than the one that went to the polls in a festival atmosphere in 1992. The closed circles within the military and the administration, whom opposition candidate Ahmed Talib Ibrahimi referred to last week as "the deciders" in Algeria, have proved tenacious in their grip on power.

Depassement, or "overstepping the mark", is a favoured word of the current administration. It is used for everything from minor electoral malpractices to large numbers of Latin American-style "disappearances" of people. Amnesty International estimates some 3,000 disappeared since 1992.

On Wednesday, just 16 hours before the polls opened, six of the seven presidential candidates announced they would not be standing in an election they claimed would be rigged to ensure Mr Bouteflika's victory. Algerian television relayed the news with pictures of the candidates, but no soundbites.

When the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) called a demonstration in central Algiers on Friday, to protest that the election had become a one-horse race, Algerian television showed brief pictures of protesters being dispersed by riot police. In an age of satellite television, and with French and Spanish camera crews in town, the local channel could not ignore the demonstration entirely. Such are the two steps forward.

All candidates in last week's election spoke of the need for "national reconciliation". One of them, Mouloud Hamrouche, described as "crucial" the investigation of disappearances at the hands of the security forces, if the conditions are to be created "which will allow the population to comprehend what it is that happened in these recent years, and to turn the page".

But the FFS, respected on the Algerian political scene, says disappearances are continuing. "We don't hear about them all of course, because families are often scared to come forward," the FFS official responsible for relations with lawyers and families told The Independent on Sunday. Asking to be cited only as Abdelmalek, he had in front of him the file of most recent cases, some with photographs.

On the eve of his election victory last week, Mr Bouteflika told foreign reporters, "You are very concerned with human rights. I am as concerned as much as you." As ever, the delivery was that of the 1970s single-party apparatchik, speaking in the shadow of a liberation war which had produced a "banalisation of death". That was the phrase used by a Francophone Algerian last week, attempting to describe the experience his people have lived through in the 1990s.