Muhammad Boudiaf died with the word "Islam" on his lips. That was one of the few things known for sure last week about the assassination of Algeria's president after he was gunned down while addressing a rally. A 26-year-old presidential guard was the leading suspect; other members of his unit were detained for questioning. Still, the mystery of who was behind the murder remained, turning every Algerian into an amateur sleuth. Even the president's son spoke of conspiracy. " We have to know the truth," said Nacir Boudiaf. " Everybody has to know who killed him and why." But the country's yearlong political crisis has provided a surplus of candidates.
The obvious suspects were members of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The Muslim fundamentalist party was on its way to winning parliamentary elections last January, but hard-line military officers weren't willing to see that happen. They outlawed the FIS, forced President Chadli Benjedid to resign and called Boudiaf back from exile in neighboring Morocco to be head of state. Since January, FIS terrorists have picked off more than 45 soldiers and police officers in drive-by shootings. President Bouffiaf was killed in Annaba, a fundamentalist stronghold, just days after several FIS leaders were brought before a special security court. The FIS clearly had ample motive: revenge and the desire to show that its reach is long even while most of its leaders and some 5,000 members are in jail. The party denied responsibility for the murder but certainly wasn't mourning; from Iran, it announced "the good news" that Algeria had moved closer to an " inevitable" Islamic state.
There was also plenty of cause to suspect powerful insiders. Boudiaf, 73, may have angered the power elite by becoming more than a figurehead. Because he went into exile in 1964, two years after independence, Boudiaf was untainted by the corruption that came to plague the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN). And he had begun building an independent political base. His apparent strategy was to crack down on the FIS, then cripple the old guard of the FLN, including senior military officers suspected of lining their pockets. In his Annaba speech, Boudiaf lamented the lack of trust between the people and their leaders since independence and the role of "clans" and of Islam. "He spoke directly to the people," says Zouaoui Banamadi, publisher of the weekly Algerie Actualite.
Who now can lead them? Algeria's real rulers--Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Khaled Nezzar and his top officers--are unlikely to assume power directly, particularly given the alleged killer's military connections. For one thing, that would heighten popular suspicion, as opposition politician Hocine Ait Ahmed puts it, that Boudiaf was "a sacrificial lamb." Instead Nezzar and crew installed Ali Kafi, a leader of Algeria's independence-war veterans, as president. But titles don't mean much in Algeria anymore. What the government lacked was not a president, but legitimacy. Algerians desperately want order and stability restored, not least so they can concentrate on rebuilding their economy. Hundreds of millions of dollars of aid from the European Community and other donors are at stake. But there is little respect for a regime that would use "stability" as a pretext to short-circuit democracy, and little real hope that a credible regime will soon find its way to power.