Reinforced by a resounding vote for radical change in Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said he is now ready to launch "a total redo" of the government and the economy in an attempt to smother the Islamic revolt that has killed 100,000 people and torn the country apart.
In an interview, Bouteflika acknowledged he might look like Don Quixote in setting out to end a vicious underground war that has spilled the blood of so many Algerians, military and civilian, since it erupted in 1992. But he made it clear he is working on a bet that Algeria's 30 million inhabitants will reject the call of Islamic militancy if they see a government working to end the unemployment, corruption and inefficiency that have turned the North African nation into a model of what not to do in the Third World.
"Algeria will rise--I was going to say like a phoenix--from its ashes," he declared in an hour-long conversation Wednesday evening after attending the U.N. General Assembly session here. He added: "The experience of the '90s, the fascism--never again."
Bouteflika, 67, cautioned that he does not want to appear "messianic" in his ambitious approach to giving Algeria what he called a political "electroshock." But the diminutive former foreign minister, who spent a decade in international business, said he has returned to Algeria and official life because of "a mystical crisis" in which he feared he would die without having done his best to save the country.
Friends from the National Liberation Front, the guerrilla group from the war for independence against France, first sought his candidacy in 1994, he said, but the army's vision of what to do did not correspond then to his own, and he demurred. Asked if the military--the ultimate arbiter in Algeria--now shares his vision, Bouteflika launched into a vivid peroration about the president being commander in chief.
Bouteflika's program for "civil concord" and government reform was endorsed overwhelmingly in a referendum Sept. 16. The ballot, in which 85 percent of the electorate participated, also served to strengthen Bouteflika's mandate for leadership after his election on April 15 in a vote flawed by allegations of fraud and the pullout of all six of his rivals.
But even before the referendum, Bouteflika's unusual willingness to talk about Algeria's problems had aroused hope there and abroad that, for the first time in seven years, there was a chance to pull the country back from chaos. His promise has gone a long way toward easing worries in the United States and Europe, particularly France, that Algeria could become another Iran, flooding immigrants across the Mediterranean and endangering neighboring Morocco and Tunisia.
"Now I will have to make my thoughts more concrete," Bouteflika said, referring to plans for changes in tax and customs laws, education, the justice system and state-owned industry. "I know they have remained a little vague up to now."
Since Bouteflika's election, most attention has focused on the steps he has taken to reincorporate Islamic rebels into society.
With the backing of at least some generals in the all-powerful military, he first sealed a peace deal in June with the Islamic Salvation Army, the main rebel force that is the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The bargain effectively ended that group's participation in the war in return for the release of about 3,000 of its imprisoned members.
The Islamic Salvation Front was at the origin of Algeria's seven-year torment. It resorted to violence after the army scrapped legislative elections in 1992 when it became apparent the front's followers were heading for victory with their appeal for a return to Muslim values and an end to the country's epic corruption. But most of its leaders are now backing Bouteflika.
Then in July, Bouteflika extended a limited amnesty offer to smaller, more extreme organizations, including the Armed Islamic Group believed responsible for most of the bloodiest attacks on security forces and their civilian supporters. He said several thousand rebels have taken up the offer so far, which he qualified as "a very, very spectacular change" but which reports from Algeria have described as disappointing.
Bouteflika said when the amnesty offer expires in January, "all means the state has at its disposal" will be used to combat rebels who have not turned themselves in. "I want to say this before everybody--before the United Nations, before Amnesty International, before the world community," Bouteflika said. "We will use all means."
But aside from the amnesties, Bouteflika emphasized his desire to strip the Islamic organizations of their appeal by satisfying Algerians' more earthly needs, such as jobs, fair treatment in the courts and honesty among bureaucrats and military officers. Complaints about these things, he noted, formed an important part of the Islamic Salvation Front's 1992 platform--just as they form an important part of Bouteflika's platform now.
After his return to Algeria today, Bouteflika said, he intends to form a new government and name commissions to propose laws reorganizing the tax system, the customs, education and the courts. "I think Algeria needs a total redo of the government system," he said.
Islamic zealots can participate along with everybody else, he added, but not as political parties based on religion, which are barred by law. "The FIS is excluded from all political activity," he said.
Customs reform will be particularly delicate, he acknowledged. The abuse of export-import regulations has become so legendary in Algeria that some officials are known in the street by the goods they traffic in--"tomato," for instance, for someone getting rich by monopolizing tomato export permits. Bouteflika pledged new personnel to run the customs and laws giving them "severe enforcement powers" to right the situation.