Algerians go to polls despite death threats

Presidential election: Whatever the outcome of ballot, renewed negotiations with Islamist opposition appear inevitable
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In the yard of the Ahmed Aroua Preparatory School, Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah held aloft two frightened birds. "With these pigeons," he shouted to the camera crews, "I send a message of peace for Algeria and for the whole world." At which point, the candidate released the two terrified black and white birds into a mulberry tree. Tatty old pigeons, feathers falling out but too tired to struggle when a youth snatched one by the wings and hauled it back into the crowd. Sheikh Nahnah was on his way to vote.

It had all been billed a little more dramatically. El Watan had promised us "the longest day" while La Tribune decided the very act of voting in Algeria's presidential elections would bar the fundamentalists from power. "If you vote, you die," concluded Le Matin's cartoonist of the Islamist threats against those going to the polling booths. "If you don't vote, you die," he went on, referring to those who claim the elections were the last chance to avoid full-scale war. "So: vote and die." If the thought was unoriginal, it at least reminded you of the small inside-page article - inside because government press laws have decided that it should be that way - recording the death of 16 "terrorists" in various police and army ambushes across the country.

So first, the facts. Algerians did vote yesterday. Despite blood-curdling promises of the armed Islamist groups, men and women turned up at fortress- like polling stations to cast their ballot in the first poll since the military-backed regime suspended parliamentary elections in 1992 - elections which would have been won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which is banned and forbidden to participate in yesterday's "step in democratisation".

But what were Algerians voting for? Were they voting against the FIS by ignoring the threat of their armed Islamist supporters? Were they legalising a presidency that is of doubtful legitimacy by the mere act of turning up at the polling stations? Or were they legalising ex-general Liamine Zeroual as President by voting for him anyway? Could Sheikh Nahnah stand a remote chance of winning? And what were all those Algerians doing who voted for the FIS three years ago - up to 56 per cent of them if the FIS themselves were to be believed - when polling stations opened?

Sheikh Nahnah, the Islamist of the better-heeled classes - whose Hamas party boasts a Palestinian intifada poster with a broken Star of David in its offices but has as much in common with the Palestinian Hamas as the Tory party does to the Shining Path - was in fine form outside Algiers. There were veiled women and middle-aged men in robes turning up to vote - too frightened to talk to reporters but all expressing the vague hope that the poll might mean an end to violence - and the girls ululated when Sheikh Nahnah laid hands on another bunch of pigeons.

"This is for Algerian independence," he shouted as he threw another old bird into the air. "And this one is for tolerance. And this one is for the true image of Islam." The creatures fled in terror. "And this pigeon is against terrorism and violence," he bawled. "And this one is for peace and security."

A supporter of the more intellectual Islamist presidential candidate, Nourredin Boukhrouh (presidential chances zero) muttered later: "Sheikh Nahnah never cared much about Islam - he talked about democracy all the time because he's afraid of Islam. He has no vision at all; he just wants to get elected. Zeroual will stay." Le Pouvoir (the establishment) wants to keep him. Things will continue as they did before. Algeria will go on burning."

So confident was Mr Zeroual that he didn't bother to take up all the television time allotted to his campaign, but the intellectual classes, the military, the old nomenklatura, will have found it difficult to resist the chance of voting yesterday for a man who has promised stability, a return to democracy, an end to war.

Sheikh Nahnah, once an acquaintance of FIS leadership, will create an Islamic republic, his enemies say.

Said Saadi, the leader of the Berber "Front for Culture and Democracy", will - according to his enemies - launch a civil war if Sheikh Nahnah wins. So why not vote for Mr Zeroual?

Back in party headquarters, Sheikh Nahnah's men were resilient. Hamas support was more spontaneous than Mr Zeroual's, they said. "The government's armed Communal Guards are opening the way to the Lebanisation of Algeria," one of Sheikh Nahnah's faithful complained. "The constitution of Algeria forbids such militias - and they have been shooting at our election posters."

Those pigeons were flying again, higher and higher. Stare at them long enough and you might have been able to forget that at some point, whoever wins, the Algerian president will probably have to sit down and chat to the FIS all over again.

n Mr Zeroual took an early lead as results began to come in, officials said, with Sheikh Nahnah and Mr Saadi competing for second place and Mr Boukhrouh coming fourth and last, Reuter reports. The FIS put turn-out at 30 to 33 per cent, less than half the official figures, and said the poll would not end violence.