WHAT'S happening in Algeria has implications far beyond that North African state itself. The stirrings of democracy in Algeria have been among the strongest in the Arab world. It appeared, until just recently, that Algerians would be voting in their first free parliamentary elections June 27. But widespread protests by the country's Front for Islamic Salvation, the primary opposition force, and a subsequent crackdown by President Chadli Benjedid created a detour in the path toward democracy.
President Benjedid says he remains committed to the political reforms initiated over two years ago after riots in October 1988 exposed the depth of popular discontent in the country. Benjedid's newly appointed prime minister, Sid Ahmed Ghozali, is conferring with opposition forces in forming an interim government. The elections have reportedly been rescheduled for the fall, probably October.
Islamic leaders, for their part, have shown some willingness to temper their followers' tendency to take to the streets. While some within the front call for immediate overthrow of the government, others, including its leader, Abassi Madani, endorse the democratic route to power. A question remains, however, about the depth of that endorsement.
Elections served the Islamic Front well a year ago, when its candidates dominated provincial and municipal tallies. The elections scheduled for late June, however, appeared much less promising for Islamic politicians, who have been criticized for failing to address economic woes in the areas they control.
The Islamic Front, in turn, criticized the government for gerrymandering parliamentary districts to favor the ruling party.
Algeria bears close watching. Its current political drama spotlights the issue of reconciling Islam and democracy. Some observers point out that leading Islamic reformers in Algeria, like Mandani, are well-educated men with liberal inclinations that distinguish them from fundamentalists in other Arab lands who clamor for a theocratic state. Others warn that the same clamor is heard in Algeria and that animosity between Islamic and secular forces are so great that civil war could break out.
No one concerned about stability in the Middle East and world peace can doubt that the Arab world badly needs a new politics - one that moves away from one-man, one-party, or one-family rule toward a blending of the ethical strengths of Islam and the tolerance and legitimacy of liberal democracy. Algeria is one place that new politics could take shape - if radicalism and violence don't prevent it.