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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Post-Poll Algeria, Peace Hopes Revive

PARIS -- When Algeria's military-backed government insisted on staging elections two weeks ago, the odds were good for a disaster. The country was, after all, in the midst of a vicious civil war, and key political opponents were either in jail or exile.


Yet when former General Liamine Zeroual placed his hand on the Koran last week, officially taking the oath of office as Algeria's sixth president, it was clear that the North African nation of 28 million people had not only survived its election but may well have taken a small step toward peace.


Zeroual has already moved to renew his call for a "national dialogue" with Islamic opponents.


In one of his first official acts, he closed a prison camp in the Sahara Desert, releasing about 640 Islamic militants who had been held there without trial.


The decision to close the prison appears to be part of a strategy to drive a wedge between Moslems who oppose the government -- separating militants willing to engage in talks from guerrillas trying to overthrow the government.


In fact, cracks in the opposition facade have already begun to appear, beginning with the election itself, in which a massive turnout was recorded despite boycott calls and threats of violence.


Zeroual's election, with 60 percent of the vote, was no surprise given that strong opposition parties such as the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, still are banned in the country. But the huge turnout was viewed by political analysts, and even by Western governments opposed to the military regime, as an overwhelming demand for peace in a nation where an estimated 40,000 people have died in political violence since 1992.


Division in the Islamic opposition appeared shortly after the election, with some leaders seeing Zeroual's installation as an opportunity and others dismissing it as an undemocratic exercise.


In an open letter, Rabah Kebir, the exiled leader of the FIS who lives in Bonn, recognized the legitimacy of the newly elected president and called on him to press to reopen dialogue with the government's opponents.


But Amwar Haddam, the FIS spokesman in Washington, called the election "illegitimate" and said "the war will go on."


The apparent split in that organization created an opening for Zeroual, who called on his country's politicians this week to use the presidential election "to put in place an authentic, pluralist democracy."


Zeroual, 54, a retired general, was installed by the army as head of state in January 1994.


Now, though, Zeroual has a thin reed of democratic legitimacy that he never had as an appointed leader. Political analysts say the election may give Zeroual enough independence from his military masters to restart negotiations.


Nevertheless, the new president has a long battle ahead. Political violence has continued, with more than a dozen killings since the election. Last week, an army general was slain in an Algiers suburb, and Moslem guerrillas Thursday killed two Latvian seamen.