The forthcoming National Assembly elections will be the first since the military-backed annulment of the January 1992 elections and the forced resignation of President Chadli Bendjedid.9 Between 1992 and 1995, Algeria was governed entirely by unelected officials. The military-backed High Council of State appointed the president and cabinet. The National Assembly was replaced by the National Transitional Council, a consultative body whose sixty members were appointed. At the local level, most of the officials who won their posts in the Islamic Salvation Front landslide in the 1990 municipal elections were ousted and replaced by persons selected by the central government.In November 1995, a multi-candidate presidential election confirmed as president retired General Liamine Zéroual, who had been appointed to that post in January 1994.10

Algeria continues to be governed under a state of emergency decreed in February 1992. That decree gives the authorities vast powers to arrest and intern individuals, prevent public gatherings, close an organization on the grounds of an impending danger to the public order, and suspend or dissolve local assemblies or governments if they impede the legal actions of the public authorities. At the same time as it imposed the state of emergency, the authorities banned the FIS, the party calling for an Islamic state that had been legalized in 1989 and that was poised to capture a majority in the National Assembly if the election had proceeded. The top leadership of the FIS had already been in prison since 1991 on subversion charges; most of the remaining senior cadres either went underground or fled into exile. Some members of the now-outlawed FIS and other Islamist groups took up arms against the government, and have since attracted a stream of recruits to their ranks. The ensuing violence, in which both the security forces and armed groups have targeted civilians as well as each other, shows no signs of abating.11

Several topics have dominated political debate among Algerians. These include the pace at which the state-dominated economy should be liberalized; high-level corruption; the heavy influence exercised by the military in running the affairs of the state; how to address the violence and political impasse that followed the cancellation of the elections; and what role, if any, to permit Islamists, including the outlawed FIS, in the political process.

On the question of the role for the FIS, many opponents argue that the party is implicated in violence and intimidation against its perceived adversaries in Algerian society, and that it is hostile to democracy, women's rights, Berber cultural rights, and the rights of persons who do not share their religious views. Those who favor a role for the FIS argue that the 1990 and 1991 elections demonstrated the broad popular support it enjoys, and argue that it will-or can be constrained to-respect democratic rules. Parties that have advocated a role for the FIS have been the target of much of the censorship imposed during the presidential and current legislative campaigns.

The government has largely denied the existence of a human rights problem other than the "terrorism" it attributes to Islamist armed groups, despite the compelling evidence, collected by human rights organizations, that torture, "disappearances", and arbitrary killings by the security forces are widespread. In a typical comment, a Foreign Ministry official was reported to have said on March 3, "It is true that Algeria, a victim of terrorism, is going through a difficult period that involves a certain number of measures to protect persons and property, but any state that respects human rights imposes some measures within the framework of its struggle against terrorism, such as the state of emergency."12 Interior Minister Mustafa Benmansour said in an interview with Human Rights Watch on April 9:

I personally do not consider Algeria as a country that has human rights violations. All procedures are carried out according to the law. There are no violations, except for some excesses that take place in the framework of operations, such as insults, or beatings-but these are subjected to prosecution or internal disciplinary measures....We lived through a war in 1992 and 1993, and at that time the very foundations of the country were threatened. Nevertheless, Algeria handled [human rights issues] with great care.

President Zéroual maintained contacts with FIS leaders during the early part of his presidency but, according to the government, the contacts broke down over the refusal by the FIS to agree in advance to abandon its support of armed resistance. The FIS, for its part, co-signed a platform in Rome in January 1995 with five legal political parties, calling for negotiations between the government and political parties, including the FIS, suspension of violence by both sides and eventual democratic elections. The signatories included the three parties-the FIS, the FLN and the FFS-that together had won 78.5 percent of the popular vote in the first round of legislative voting in December 1991 and captured 229 of the 232 seats decided in that round of voting. The Rome initiative, known as the National Contract, was rejected by the authorities.

While spurning demands for negotiations with a broad range of parties toward establishing a framework for a cease-fire and new elections, the authorities invited legal political parties for "consultations" as they prepared the country for the presidential elections in November 1995. In that polling, President Zéroual defeated three other candidates by a wide margin. Zéroual's victory and the high rate of voter participation, in defiance of threats by armed groups to kill those who cast ballots, impressed many observers who interpreted the outcome as a mandate to break the political deadlock and end the endemic violence.13

The period that followed disappointed those who looked to the president to initiate a meaningful opening toward representative political forces. Instead, the government drafted a new constitution with minimal input from the political parties, and announced that it would be put to a popular referendum. President Zéroual also promised legislative and municipal elections in 1997. Meanwhile, the lull in political violence around the presidential elections proved to be short-lived.

In November 1996, Algerians voted to approve the new constitution. Some parties, including the RCD, MDA and Ettahaddi, boycotted the referendum, while the FFS urged a "no" vote. Independent estimates put the rate of participation well below the officially declared 79 percent, of which nearly 86 percent voted "Yes." No international observers were present, and foreign journalists present were hampered in their movements.14

In February, a new political party was announced that would draw its support from union, veteran, peasant, and civic associations that supported President Zéroual in the 1995 election. The so-called National Democratic Rally (RND) is led by Abdelkader Bensalah, who also heads the government-appointed National Transitional Council. It would be the first manifestly pro-government party since the FLN went into the opposition after the cancellation of elections in 1992. The FLN was the ruling party during nearly three decades of one-party rule.

In March, the government set legislative elections for June 5, and announced that the campaign would start on May 15.

9 On those elections and their aftermath, see Middle East Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Middle East), "Human Rights in Algeria Since the Halt of the Electoral Process," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 4, no. 2, February 1992. 10 On the presidential election, see Human Rights Watch/Middle East press release, "Algeria: Islamist Violence, Government Pressures Cast Shadow on Presidential Elections," November 16, 1995. 11 See, Middle East Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Middle East), Human Rights Abuses in Algeria: No One is Spared (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994). 12 "Ouverture mardi des négociations avec l'EU," AFP, March 3, 1997. 13 The official results were 61.34 percent for Zéroual, 25.38 percent for Mahfoudh Nahnah of Hamas (now the MSP), 9.29 percent for Said Saadi (RCD), and 3.78 percent for Noureddine Boukrouh of the PRA. The authorities stated that the rate of participation was 74.92 percent. Many in the opposition questioned that figure, although they acknowledged that voting was heavier than had been expected. 14 Roger Cohen, "Algeria says Charter Passes, but Critics Charge Vote Fraud," New York Times, November 30, 1996.