Saturday Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika gave his first public address since assuming office in April. Bouteflika called for a number of reforms in Algeria's economic and government sectors aimed at combating corruption, providing more transparency in government and inspiring a greater adherence to the constitution, according to ArabicNews.com. The speech also outlined plans for increased international cooperation and domestic reconciliation with rebel groups who have been fighting the Algerian army since the latter cancelled 1992 elections expected to bear an Islamist victory.
Bouteflika's pervasive maxim in the speech-that "evolution tells us to adapt to our time" in stamping out corruption and achieving national unity in the interest of progress-was well received by international observers and opposition parties such as the Worker's Party (PT), the Algerian Republican Party (PRA) and the Republican National Alliance (ANR), according to Algerie Presse Service. Even the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which led the armed rebellion before agreeing to a cease-fire in 1997, supported most of the President's reform measures. FIS founder Shaykh Ahmad Merani told ArabicNews.com that Algerian people expected the government to "embody and apply these solutions" because it is due time they saw "reforms and results in the field."
Bouteflika has received numerous endorsements on the international front and has pursued better ties with the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Arab League and neighboring nations as well as Western nations. Many have hailed what appears to be the military's fair hand-over of power to a civilian government. Bouteflika's has also made some high-profile reconciliation gestures that have reinforced the notion of his democratic legitimacy. On the morning of his May 29 address, the President pardoned some 4,000 prisoners who had been arrested for disturbing the public order.
Although the Presidential address was generally well received on the domestic front for its bravery in criticizing past government corruption, doubts remain over Bouteflika's commitment to democracy. Amidst the international praise, it is easy to forget that Bouteflika was backed by the military in the recent election and that all other contenders quit the campaign a day before the vote in protest of alleged election fraud.
While Bouteflika's speech vaguely rebuked political cronyism and economic corruption, he said nothing of the military's role in all of this and, in fact, praised the army for its successful containment of the Islamist armed rebellion. The latest military action, the deployment of 8,000 troops to drive rebels out of the Bouzegza mountains, exemplifies the continuing violence that threatens to undermine Bouteflika's professed commitment to a unified democracy.
According to Agence France Presse, the pro-FIS paper, Al-Ribat, said that Bouteflika's speech disappointed the Algerian people despite its call for reforms. Al-Ribat noted that the address was silent on key issues such as human rights and peace talks with the FIS leadership.
Other commentators went further in insisting Bouteflika's speech was not so much concerned with domestic opinion as it was with international confidence in Algeria's stability and free-market reforms. While many local press articles questioned Bouteflika's ability to clean up corruption and ensure Algeria's integration into the global economy, an editorial in Wednesday's El Watan said, "...democratization process in our country responds more to the hidden logic of globalization than a [notion of modern] adaptation." The article also accused Bouteflika of using the cover of liberalization to help gain Algeria acceptance in the global free market.
Bouteflika's professed commitment to reform and democracy could perhaps lead him to bring lasting rights and peace to the Algerian people. But the new president still has far to go in gaining domestic confidence in a military-linked government widely believed to have its own agenda.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com
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