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The World : A Fight for Democracy in Middle East: ‘The Battle of Algiers’ Part II

<i> Robin Wright, who covers global affairs for The Times, is co-author of "Flashpoints: Promise and Peril in a New World" (Knopf)</i>

Finally, the world is waking up to Algeria’s civil war, a conflict that has raged for three years yet remains one of the most underreported--and misunderstood--crises anywhere on this increasingly chaotic earth. Unfortunately, it took the spectacle of a grizzly Christmas hijacking to do it.

But what makes the latest episode of Mideast extremism so tragic is that it was so predictable. The lessons of the past have been ignored.

Algeria first erupted in the mid-1950s. Over eight years, close to a million people died as France, defying the tides of history, tried to put down a war for independence that later served as the model for European colonies throughout Africa and Asia. “The Battle of Algiers” became both a political and cinematographic legend.

Now it’s happening again. The Christmas hijacking grows out of another inevitable struggle--in some ways a sequel to that conflict launched four decades ago.

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Last time, the issue was independence. A generation of Algerian nationalists was ready to fight and die to end exploitative colonial rule. The tactics by both sides were brutal, the bitterness deep.

But by 1962, France was forced to retreat. Under the socialist banner of the National Liberation Front, or FLN, Algeria became independent.

This time, the flash point is democracy. A new generation of Algerian idealists, the largest number mobilized this time around an Islamic banner, is prepared to fight and die to end totalitarian military rule seized in a 1992 coup that aborted the country’s first free, multi-party parliamentary elections.

The tactics--from grizzly neck-slashings by Islamic extremists to indiscriminate assassinations by the state’s “ninja” death squads--are again outrageous. Internal hostility is unprecedented.

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Last fall, the government conceded the death toll reached 10,000, while diplomats claimed the total exceeded 20,000. Last week, the French paper Le Parisien quoted a secret Algerian army report disclosing almost 35,000--7,000 Islamists, 2,700 security forces and 25,000 civilians--had been killed in just the first 10 months of 1994.

That’s more than 100 a day, an even more impressive figure because the victims are not killed en masse by artillery or bombs but mostly one by one by one.

Neither the Islamists nor the government is likely to win an outright military victory. Yet the junta, like colonial rule, is unlikely to survive. Politically, the system is corrupt, incompetent and backed by a minuscule military elite. Support reportedly wavers even among the security-force rank-and-file.

Economically, the regime barely earns enough off natural gas and hydrocarbon resources to repay the interest on its stunning foreign debt, much less address the even more staggering housing, unemployment, inflation and poverty problems that spawned widespread disillusionment.

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More important, however, the tides of history--specifically the global push toward empowerment and political pluralism--have already doomed the regime.

Some Middle East scholars go as far as to suggest that the current conflict represents the real culmination of Algeria’s revolution. The last 30 years were just an interlude as independent Algeria gradually shed Western ways--from the French language to Marxist rule--inherited or learned during colonialism. Now, the argument goes, Algeria is merely returning to its own culture.

Certainly, the progression from independence, or empowering a state, to democracy, or empowering a people, is a pattern that characterizes the past half-century of political development worldwide.

But what differentiates Algeria from the transitions in Chile, South Africa or the Czech Republic--in Western eyes--is the Islamic component. Because of the “clash of civilizations” from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, Western fears about Islam--primarily because of events in Iran and Lebanon--have prevailed over reason, and a growing body of evidence.

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French policy, particularly, has been premised on fears that the Islamists won’t allow one-person, one-vote more than one time. As a result, Paris and other European capitals have backed the junta politically, economically and by allowing sales of goods for military use.

No policy could be more misguided.

First, tolerating the regime’s vast human-rights abuses--including mass detentions, torture, summary justice in thousands of secret trials, and murder--quickly created an environment conducive to the emergence of extremism.

With the ballot box off-limits, the mainstream Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS--on the verge of sweeping the 1992 election when it was aborted and FIS outlawed--turned to the bullet. Guerrillas loyal to FIS and the Islamic Salvation Army now regularly target government and military personnel and installations--ironically, a virtual repeat of FLN strategy against the French four decades ago.

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More ominously, the crisis spawned a new faction of hardened Islamic extremists who have gone after Algerian civilians and foreigners as well as soft targets--such as passenger planes. And unlike FIS, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) has been unwilling to talk with the junta about a peaceful compromise.

With the junta’s decision two months ago to abandon reconciliation in favor of a military solution, the danger grows that FIS will increasingly be supplanted by the GIA extremists on the widely diverse Islamic spectrum. And once again, the repercussions of Algeria’s crisis may extend far beyond North African shores.

Second, the evolving pattern of political change in the Middle East since the late 1980s disproves Western fears. In every Arab country where Islamist parties were allowed to participate in elections, including Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Lebanon, they have demonstrated a willingness to work for peaceful change within systems--and not to destroy them by violent means from outside.

In Amman’s 1989 and 1993 elections, Islamists won the largest parliamentary bloc both times. Jordan’s fragile young democracy is now the region’s showcase. Under the right conditions, Islam can actually be a force for democracy.

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Conversely, Islamist extremism is highest in countries where Islamic parties are excluded and elections are either non-existent or government-controlled, such as Egypt. Like their secular counterparts in the Middle East and elsewhere, Islamists of all ilk want a say in the way their governments rule.

The bottom line is the real issue in Algeria is not Islamic “fundamentalism.” It is democracy. If Islamists from either end of their spectrum come to power and violate the new craving for democracy by not empowering all people, they too will be challenged--and ultimately lose. Something far deeper is going on in North Africa, of which Islam is only one part. The tides of history are moving in a broader direction.*


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