This week, Muslims worldwide will celebrate Eid Al-Fitr, the traditional feast that marks the end of the month of Ramadan, which is a period of fasting and pious reflection. In Algeria, Eid Al-Fitr is being awaited with a special sense of anticipation, it is hoped that the holiday will mark an end to a period of particularly vicious bloodletting.
Ever since the outbreak of civil war in Algeria in 1992, after the army canceled the results of a general election that the Islamic Salvation Front (Islamique du Salut, FIS) was believed to have won, rebels affiliated with the Armed Islamic Group (AIG) traditionally step up their activity during the holy month. About 100,000 people have died as a result of the violence since 1992.
This year, the Ramadan appeared to start quite peacefully. But things turned nastier as the month progressed. On Wednesday, 12 people were killed by suspected Islamic fundamentalists in three separate incidents. Reportedly, one of these involved a family of five in their home in Miliana region in western Algeria, whose throats were slashed by a group of 20 militants. A day earlier, armed Islamic fundamentalists slaughtered 22 people in an isolated village in the country’s northwest region, bringing the death toll in three consecutive days to more than 80 victims. This attack followed the killing of 15 travelers west of the capital Algiers when an armed group opened fire on a bus. Five people were killed in another incident one hour earlier.
The human rights group Amnesty International strongly condemned the latest round of bloodshed. “The killing has to stop,” it said in a statement. “The Algerian authorities should spare no effort to investigate these crimes and to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. They must instigate measures to ensure that the civilian population is protected.”
For his part, President Abdulaziz Bouteflika responded by ordering a security crackdown; with his security forces launching a counterattack in the Jijel region, east of Algiers, assassinating a number of extremists.
This latest round of violence possibly signals the end of a more moderate policy by Bouteflika, who earlier had offered a six-month amnesty to militants who had not committed murder or rape or who had no blood on their hands. As part of that amnesty, ending January, the main elements of the armed wing of the FIS surrendered. This left the AIG and another group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), in the field. The GSPC split from the GIA in 1997 after a particularly brutal massacre of French monks.
But despite this latest round carnage, foreign business corporations continue to beat a path to Algeria’s door. The government recently placed a notice in Britain’s Financial Times inviting consultants to submit bids by January 15 for the process of preparing the national airline for privatization. Air France is thought to be one of the companies that will bid for the Algerian carrier. Another is Alitalia of Italy.
The sale of the airline is part of a general privatization campaign being carried out by the Algerian government. This past June, Algeria was the recipient of a $9 million loan from the World Bank, which was earmarked for the privatization of telecommunications and postal sectors. An additional $5 million was provided for unspecified privatization assistance.
Furthermore, the Algerian parliament is soon expected to ratify a new law that will remove all restrictions on foreign firms seeking to invest and operate the country’s airports. At present, companies investing and operating in airport infrastructure must be at least 50 percent Algerian-owned. But with limited financial resources from both the public and private sectors, Algeria has little alternative but to turn to foreign capital and expertise in key airport infrastructure projects.
Local-foreign partnerships have long thrived in developing the country’s lucrative energy sector. Such cooperation reached a new high on December 7, when Sonatrach, the state-owned energy company, signed a partnership accord with Conoco to conduct a feasibility study for a proposed integrated energy project. The three-billion-dollar venture will include the generation and marketing of electricity from Algerian natural gas, including the development of onshore natural gas facilities and the construction of a pipeline to transport the gas to a 1,200-MW power generation plant. According to a Conoco spokesperson, any excess gas from the field will be exported through a sub-sea pipeline to Europe, or liquefied and shipped to Turkey.
In recent months Algeria’s balance of payments has also improved dramatically. The country’s foreign exchange reserves rose to $9.67 billion this past October, representing a 120-percent increase over the corresponding figure one year earlier. This augmentation has been accompanied by acceleration in debt repayments, reducing the country’s outstanding obligations to $25.5 billion by the end of the year. The increase in debt repayments is in part a result of improved revenues from oil imports, but also reflects a move towards more active liability management. The Algerian authorities are expected to seek a sovereign rating within six months.
But Bouteflika still treads a very thin line. He recently agreed to a 33 percent rise in Algeria's minimum wage and a 15 percent increase in civil service salaries from January 1. However, while seemingly generous, the increases however fell short of levels agreed in talks among the government, trade unions and employers, which included a 66 percent hike in the minimum wage and a 25 percent increase for civil service employees. These measures had been sought to redress a fall in consumer purchasing power in Algeria over the past six years.
The success of the Algerian government in divorcing the civil war in the country with the perception of economic opportunity has been remarkable. However, it is doubtful whether government can sustain such a feat in the face of the type of bloodshed that has been witnessed this past Ramadan. – (Albawaba-MEBG)
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )