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Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah (from L-R) , head of Front for Justice and Development party (FJD), Bouguerra Soltani, minister of state and head of the Society Movement for Peace (MSP), and Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN) leader Abdelaziz Belkhadem, attend the first Front for Justice and Development party congress in Algiers, in this February 10, 2012 file photo.REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina A commission of judges will oversee the vote count, replacing the interior ministry officials who usually do the job.
There, the ruling elite conceded to pressure by allowing a moderate Islamist opposition party to head a new government, but kept the levers of real power in its hands. They depend on the help of Algeria, the biggest military power in the region, to contain the spreading threat from al Qaeda’s north African wing around the southern edge of the Saharan desert.
Michael Romig, a spokesman for the Al Karama human rights organization which Dhina headed up, said it was odd that he had been arrested now.
Dhina had lived openly in Switzerland for years and travelled often to France. However, Rachad, of which Dhina is a founder, had in the past few months launched a London-based satellite television station broadcasting into Algerian homes, and placed links on one of its Internet sites on “how to free your country” and “organize and participate in unrest.” Many Algerians do not think the parliamentary election in May will provide the spark that sets off an upheaval.
Alone among its neighbors in North Africa, Algeria has been largely untouched by the uprisings which last year ousted leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and touched off the revolt still raging in Syria.
Helped by revenues from energy exports that have bequeathed it the world’s 14th biggest foreign exchange reserves, the Algerian authorities handed out pay rises, grants and subsidies that blunted a brief flare-up of protests demanding reform.
They also fear that any turmoil could disrupt the flow of natural gas through pipelines under the Mediterranean Sea.
Algeria supplies about one fifth of Europe’s gas imports.
Mourad Dhina, an Algerian scientist who used to work at the CERN physics research institute in his adopted home of Switzerland, was arrested last month in Paris after attending a meeting of Rachad, an Algerian Islamist opposition movement whose leaders are based mostly in Europe.
He is now in La Sante prison awaiting a hearing to decide if he will be extradited to Algeria, where a court in 2003 found him guilty of having links to armed Islamist groups.
In the Chifa mountain gorge, once a favorite picnic spot an hour’s drive south of Algiers, security forces have posts on top of almost every ridge, where they hunker down behind concrete, sandbags and razor wire.
The insurgency, now affiliated to al Qaeda, has lost momentum but still carries out sporadic kidnappings, ambushes and suicide bombings - a young soldier died this month after stepping on an improvised explosive device.
Pressure is building inside Algeria and abroad to ensure a fair election.