Polling amid songs of love, rumours of terror

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There was Andalusian love music. There were white-liveried waiters. There was a Saudi, a handful of Egyptians and Palestinians, and four officials from the South African Foreign Ministry. And there was, outside in the darkening, Mediterranean breeze, a very large number of policemen. The Algerian election was reaching its final pre-vote stage.

On the first floor of the Aurassi hotel, hovering high over Algiers like a great battleship, all bridges and concrete decks, the government of President Liamine Zeroual - favourite for his own job in tomorrow's elections - was holding court for the dozens of international diplomats who will be observing the poll, fanning out in the next few hours to voting booths in Constantine, Oran, Blida, Tindouf and points south. No one knew who asked the Algerian singer to greet the men from the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity and the UN with declarations of Andalusian love, but it was a good way of forgetting all the rumours.

Rumours are the cancer of every election. Was it true that the people of Bab el-Oued, intimidated by the GIA's (Armed Islamic Group) threat to kill anyone who voted, had stocked up with three days of food and water to tide them over Algeria's latest experiment in democracy? Could it be possible - and here was a real trip down fantasy lane, courtesy of a well- known London newspaper - that 500 suicide bombers were going to assault Algiers today and tomorrow to destroy the election? The Algerian war may be savage - there was one car bombing yesterday, about 60 miles from the capital, in which one person was killed - but surely not that exotic.

Dr Ali Abdul Karim, assistant secretary-general of the Arab League, certainly didn't think so. He is dispatching his brave 44 delegates to the cities and to the bled today to observe the quality of fairness, protection or intimidation under which the population might suffer. Was he satisfied with security? "We've got to be," Dr Abdul Karim said boldly. But Yemenis - for Dr Abdul Karim is one - are traditionally brave men. How about Mtutuzeli Mpehle, North African director of the South African Foreign Ministry? No problem, he said. Nelson Mandela had sent his personal wishes to the delegates and he himself had been a visitor to Algeria in the days when South Africa was going through - and here Mr Mpehle paused diplomatically - "our bad days."

Across the auditorium, Dr Leila Aslawi, in charge of President Zeroual's election, had no doubts. A former minister in the Zeroual government whose husband was murdered a year ago, she stood, unsmiling, with all the confidence of a well-educated Westernised lady. "Zeroual is the man we need - he doesn't promise adventures, he promises stability and peace. He is the guarantee of order. I go for programmes, not personalities - and Zeroual's programme calls for dialogue."

Not dialogue with the Islamic Salvation Front or the armed Islamists who threaten the government, but dialogue with those who are going to lose Thursday's election; with Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah of what is called the "moderate" Hamas Islamic party, with Said Sadi, the secular Kabyle leader who runs the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratie and with Nourredin Boukrouh, who likes to call himself an intellectual Islamist (and who will, most assuredly, come last tomorrow). What, I asked meekly last night, about Ali Belhaj and Abassi Madani, the imprisoned FIS leaders? Could they not be in a dialogue? With a gesture, Mrs Aslawi dismissed them as "yesterday's men".

"After the election, there will be a new opposition," she announced. "Sadi, Nahnah and Boukhrouh. I am not naive. I know there will be discussions - but under the state of order of the Republic. Look, we can't talk any more about dialogue after all the victims of the killings - of whom my husband was one. The killers claim they can stop the voters going to the polls but already Algerians in France have given their answer. They voted, all of them - didn't you see the pictures of the crowds? It will be the same here."

Will it? Perhaps Mrs Aslawi will prove to be right and the people will flock to the polling booths tomorrow despite the bloodthirsty threats from the GIA, despite the fact that the FIS, which stood to win the last national elections until they were cancelled in January, 1992, is now illegal.

Today, the popular rumour has it, will be a test, not just for the will of Algeria's potential 16 million voters but for the armed groups who say they are determined to smash the election and for the tens of thousands of troops and policemen patrolling the streets of Algiers and Oran and Constantine in fleets of jeeps and Saladin armoured vehicles. No one, at least, will be able to dispute their desire for elections. The army and police all voted on Tuesday.