Wednesday, August 23, 2006

PANEL DISCUSSION WITH ALGERIAN OFFICIALS

On Tuesday I was part of a panel -- along with state Sen. Dede Feldman and Bob Johnson, director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government -- that met with a visiting delegation of Algerians, three women and two men that included a couple of judges, a lawyer, a diplomat and the director of an organization that aids women who are victims of violence.

The visitors wanted to learn about how New Mexico is dealing with corruption and ethics reform. But in our discussions, through French interpreters, I believe I learned more from them than they did from me.

Lawyer Khaled Bourayou -- whose clients include Algerian newspapers -- gave us a brief history of his country. Algeria won independence from France in 1962 and was a one-party socialist state until 1989 when the country adopted a new constitution. Bourayou said the official policy of Algeria now favors human rights, equality for women, free elections, freedom of press and private property rights. But the government's main problem remains its struggle with Islamic fundamentalists who want to estalish an Islamic Republic.

Although press freedom is the offical policy, Borayou said his government had to crack down on a radical Isamic paper that was calling for the overthrow of the government.

I told him here that in the U.S. many of us feel that the free expression of extremist views is considered a safety valve and that most people reject the truly crazy ideas. He argued that Algeria is such a religious society the Islamic extremists are able to manipulate the people and that the paper had to be shut down because it was a threat to freedom. He reminded me of this country's McCarthy era. I agreed that there are always those who would take our freedoms away and that you always have to be vigilant.

(Here is a recent article (from a South African site) about the Islmamic milita in Algeria linked to al Qaeda, which says the movement is in decline. Violence between the fundamentalists and the government has cost an estimated 200,000 lives since 1992.)

Mohamed Amara, a Supreme Court magistrate, asked why corruption was a problem in a country so affluent where civil servants are well paid. I answered with a line from an Elvis Presley song: "A poor man wants to be a rich man, a rich man wants to be king."

By the way, I was surprised that at least some of the Algerians were already familiar with our state treasurer scandal. New Mexico's corruption is known worldwide!

WACKY WEDNESDAY: Happy Birthday Stringbean!

With his long nightshirts and low-hanging pant, belted around the knees, his funny hat, his deadpan face -- and a truly dangerous banjo ...