A special correspondent reports on the surprise announcement that Algerian president Liamine Zeroual is to step down. Why? And what does this mean for war torn Algeria?

Only a handful of men -- the shadowy but all-powerful Generals who have really always run Algeria since independence -- know the true reasons behind President Liamine Zeroual's announcement on 23 September that he would step down by next February -- almost two years early -- and hold early Presidential elections in which he would not run.

For everyone else the announcement came as a total shock, opening the way for all kinds of speculation. Although Zeroual claimed his aim was to strengthen democratic freedom few believed him, not least because during his four years in office there have been scant signs of such commitment and also because it is naive to believe anyone could be elected without the support of the military establishment.

Originally selected as president by the military in 1994 after elections were abruptly blocked two years earlier to prevent victory by the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front, (FIS), Zeroual, a retired general, has appeared both buffeted and pressured by warring military factions and very far from being his own man. Although there had been hopes he might try to negotiate a way out of the devastating six-year old insurgency against Islamic extremists talks collapsed and the regime instead resorted once more to blanket repression.

The impact of Zeroual's announcement has been to plunge the country into yet more political uncertainty -- and possibly worse turmoil. Social conditions, already bad, have been deteriorating to a point where the kind of explosion already seen -- and put down with terrible force in 1988 -- is once more a very real possibility, especially because of the austerity caused by the recent ending of an IMF adjustment programme.

Most young Algerians have no jobs; many feel excluded -- and angry. Change looks impossible while the war continues as the precarious security situation (and the murder of over 100 foreigners) has caused foreign investors to leave en masse, except for those in the heavily-protected oil industry situated in the South. Even oil, on which the country is vulnerably dependant, is suffering lower prices which may entail a further rescheduling of the country's massive foreign debt.

Real improvement depends on whether Algeria's Generals will permit the next Presidential incumbent the powers to introduce the...

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