Leading article: One last chance for Algeria

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The Independent Online
Day by day, death by death, Algeria draws nearer to the brink of collapse as an organised society, its veneer of French civilisation stripped away, the civic values of its Islamic faith perverted by a savage vendetta against anyone thought to oppose militant fundamentalism. Could it have been prevented? And, even now, can it be stopped?

Although taking place less than two hours by air from Marseilles or Barcelona, Algeria's bitter civil war seems to be fought in the shadows, veiled by intimidation and the danger posed to working journalists. Robert Fisk's reports in this newspaper over the past two weeks have shown us its face with brutal clarity: an inflexible regime, a fanatical opposition, brave policemen in the service of a flawed cause and innocent victims doomed by their secular lifestyle or their piety.

This war is frequently compared to the 1979 revolution in Iran. But Algeria faces a far worse fate - not the violent substitution of kingship by theocracy but the disintegration of all civilised order.

Foreign intervention could not have averted the Algerian conflict. But when the government called off elections and banned the mainstream fundamentalist party, Europe blundered. It left Algerian policy to France and then acquiesced in a line ordained by Paris, combining support for the regime with the heavy-handed repression of Muslim militancy. This method yielded only bloody stalemate. What Islamic party, if it came to power, would now heed Europe's pleas for human rights?

Yet as the Algerian conflict has worsened it has also multiplied in complexity, revealing divisions between town and countryside, Berber and Arab, liberals and hardliners; divisions, too, inside the ranks of the Muslim movement between politicians and pure terrorists.

These nuances give rise to hope. There is still room for a concerted European and Arab initiative to identify moderates in the government and members of the Islamic groups who might be prodded towards a renewal of dialogue. The government turned its back on a recent reconciliation conference in Rome: it should be told that foreign support is conditional upon progress towards a political solution.This is a textbook case for the European Union to speak with the authority of its common foreign and security policy.

Bolstered by the prospect of economic aid - tied to the restoration of democracy and the cessation of violence - realists in Algeria might then get a last chance. Algerians rebuilt their country once before, when the French settlers made the famous choice "between the suitcase and the coffin" and departed at the end of the colonial war. But if the present conflict unfolds to its logical and grim conclusion, independent Algeria will be ready for the shroud.