The Week Ahead: Algerian generals wait in the conference wings

THE military-backed authorities in Algeria, aware that their undemocratic regime has done nothing to cow Islamic fundamentalism, hold a national conference tomorrow and Wednesday in Algiers to discuss how the country should be run during the next three years.

But only two moderate Islamic groups, La Nahda and Hamas, have agreed to attend. Three important groupings refuse to participate unless the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) is allowed to come along. The old ruling party, the National Liberation Front - which won independence from France in 1962 - has boycotted the event in solidarity with the FIS, describing the attempt at consensus as 'fictitious'.

The FIS wants its jailed leaders freed and the repeal of harsh emergency laws which the regime imposed years ago when it cancelled elections which the FIS was set to win.

The aim of the conference seems to be to win over moderate Islamic opinion and isolate the fundamentalist guerrillas. But, despite freeing 780 Islamic prisoners last week, the authorities seem none too confident of stemming the bloodshed that has cost some 3,000 deaths in two years. Should the conference be a flop, the generals may step forward.

More headway is expected to be made in the Middle East peace talks which quietly resume today in Washington. The chief negotiators for Syria, Lebanon and Jordan meet their Israeli counterparts in an undisclosed location, while a Palestinian team will also meet the Israelis. The hope is that negotiators in Washington, away from the public eye, will feel less wedged into entrenched positions and freer to explore areas of compromise.

There is not much chance of President Bill Clinton eluding the public eye. Amid renewed allegations about his sexual indiscretions, the President makes his maiden State of the Union address tomorrow before a joint session of Congress. The speech will focus on his ambitious health care reform, over which he faces a heavy battle. But Mr Clinton can take comfort from the opinion polls which, after a shaky start, are swinging in his favour.

The same cannot be said for the once-mighty French Communist Party, which opens its five-day congress tomorrow. The occasion marks the end of the 22-year rule of the party leader, Georges Marchais, a salty old Stalinist whose last- minute conversion to the principles of democratic socialism comes too late to revive the party's plunging fortunes. Mr Marchais, 73 and ailing, is to retire after pushing through new statutes expunging references to Leninist principles of 'democratic centralism'. Sceptics within the party regard this as cosmetic and complain that the leadership has long blocked genuine change and gagged discussion.

Even party loyalists, though glad to be shot of their old ideological baggage, are scratching their heads over what they should replace it with: 'We know what we no longer want. We are looking for what we want,' admits Andre Lajoinie, a former presidential candidate and a possible successor to Mr Marchais.

The battle for the succession is being waged in secret and contenders' names - except that of the dissident Philippe Herzog - are not yet known.

There will be no such reticence in the Greek parliament today when MPs debate the feud with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia over the use of a name which Athens regards as applying to part of Greece. Some stormy exchanges are likely: as the ruling Socialists prepare to bury the hatchet with Macedonia, they face a grilling from opposition parties who are furious at the abrupt U-turn.

Spain's two big union federations, angry at a new labour law making it easy for employers to lay off workers, have called a general strike for Thursday. But, hoping to maximise public support for their protest, they promise to keep a minimum public transport service running.

(Photograph omitted)

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