Boycott by FIS negates value of Algeria talks

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THE resumption of Algeria's national dialogue between the army- backed regime and the political parties today will be a largely sterile exercise given the absence of the main opposition movement, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

The release from jail last week of the two FIS leaders, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, and three other prominent FIS figures has given a fillip to the political process. The FIS said it would not join the national dialogue until its leaders had discussed future policy with the local leadership across the country. At issue is under what terms it would agree to a real dialogue with the government.

In an interview with the Arabic language weekly Al Alem Al Siyassi, one of the freed leaders, Kamel Guemmazi, said that no preconditions had been set by the government for their release.

'No talks can be entered into until after a full meeting of the FIS's leadership,' said Mr Guemmazi. The leadership included the political wing of the party both 'inside and outside' Algeria as well as the FIS's armed wing. 'No decision' could be taken before this meeting, which would have to be held in 'conditions of absolute freedom'.

The talks between the regime and the FIS which led to the release of the movement's leaders have assumed far greater significance than the more modest talks on national dialogue. For the regime's problems lie with the FIS, not the political parties. It was the FIS, the largest political movement until it was banned, which the army generals thwarted on the eve of their expected electoral victory in early 1992.

The regime's demarche towards the FIS may have come too late to arrest the continuing decline into violent insurrection. According to the government, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the civil conflict in the past two-and-a-half years. It is not clear how much sway the FIS leaders still hold over the different factions which make up the movement, quite apart from over the more extreme Armed Islamic Group (GIA) which has perpetrated some of the more brutal attacks.

Within Algeria opposition to the possibility of some eventual power-sharing between the FIS and the regime has also come from the Berber community. They are wary of the FIS's policy of Arabising the country, including the imposition of Arabic as the medium for communication over their own language and culture.

Some of the hardline generals known as the 'eradicators' have spoken out against the national dialogue, expressing the view that the only way to deal with the Islamists is through unremitting repression. At the weekend the main supporter overseas of the 'eradicators', the French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, expressed little confidence that the dialogue with the FIS would mark the beginning of the end of the political crisis in Algeria. 'Who can say? For the moment, nothing is less certain,' he said in a television interview.

Mr Pasqua also declared that the European Union had a contingency plan in case a conflagration in Algeria created a mass exodus across the Mediterranean towards France. He said: 'If these types of events take place, it will concern not only France but all of the countries on the Mediterranean coast, with Italy and Spain on the front line as well as France, and also the entire European Union. We will have a plan for this situation which we hope to avoid.'