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Islamic Victory in Algeria Is a Harbinger

Throughout the Muslim world, secular regimes tremble as many people seem poised to reject Western ways

By Mamoun FandyMamoun Fandy writes on Middle East affairs from Carbondale, Ill. / January 9, 1992

IN Algeria's first free parliamentary elections since independence in 1962, the Islamic Salvation Front has emerged as the major power in that country. The victory of Islam in Algeria may represent a trend that will dominate Middle Eastern politics in the new world order.

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The Islamic Salvation Front won 188 seats, followed by the Socialist Front (dominated by the Berbers) with 25 seats. The National Liberation Front, which has governed Algeria for almost 30 years, was last with 15 seats. These parties will have run-offs Jan. 16 for the remaining 199 seats out of the 430 total. The Islamic Front needs 28 seats to have the majority, and its leaders are sure that they are going to get more than that.

On Dec. 23, Abdulkader Hashani, the acting leader of the front until the release of its main leader, Dr. Abbasi Madani, from prison, told reporters that his party would win more than 70 percent of the parliamentary seats. On the basis of the results of the first round, his assessment seems reasonable. Especially as some of the run-offs are in areas where there is a strong Islamic presence.

Realizing the danger of an Islamic victory, however, and acting under French pressure, the government of Algeria is calling on the people to work together to stop an Islamic monopoly on power. It cites the brutality of an Islamic form of government as a danger for Algerian civil liberties.

But the government's call rings hollow to Algerians and is not likely to win the people over to the government's side. First, for three decades the governing party has enjoyed the monopoly of power that it now fears from the fundamentalists. Secondly, the government's known record of brutality and its torture of its political opposition is no improvement over what the fundamentalists might do. For example, in the social unrest last June, the government arrested more than 5,000 supporters of the Islamic F ront, including Dr. Maddani and his deputy, Ali Belhadje, who are currently in prison. The government forces killed more than 50 people.

As the Jan. 16 election date draws near, the Algerian government has escalated its war of words against the Islamic Front. To discredit the front, Algerian officials are now accusing the Islamists of winning one-third of their seats through "terrorist tactics." However, neutral observers reported that the election was the fairest and calmest yet conducted in the Arab world. The government's attempt to undermine the victory of the Islamic Front, however, may cause violence in the second round of voting an d unintentionally could increase the support for the same group it wants to discredit.

The victory of the Islamic movement of Algeria could be explained in terms both of factors that are specific to the Algerian experience and of a general mood that prevails in the Arab world.

Since independence, the National Liberation Front (FLN) has dominated Algerian politics. The one-party system has been characterized by corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement of the Algerian economy. Recent reports estimate the unemployment rate in Algeria at 25 percent. This number increases daily as anti-Arab sentiments rise in Europe, especially in France. Nevertheless, the Algerian government insists on a strong relation with France.

The vote for the Islamic Front was a protest against this special relationship with Paris as well as the corruption of the current regime. The Algerian situation typifies the feeling of the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.

Islam has gained more ground in Middle Eastern states with high levels of Westernization, such as Iran, Westernized under the Shah; Lebanon, a former French colony; and now Algeria, where most of the population speaks French and many of the young people are Western-educated. These young people have experienced for themselves the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab attitudes in the streets of Europe and the United States, and have seen it expressed in Western popular media and culture.

Even some secular dissidents in Muslim countries now support the fundamentalists because they symbolize a rejection of the Western policy that led to the deaths of thousands of Iraqis. To them, this is simply one more example of the democratic countries of the West killing Arabs in Arab countries. Algerians, certainly, remember France's brutal suppression of Algeria's independence movement, in which close to a million Algerians died. Small wonder, then, that democracy doesn't seem an appealing form of go vernment to many North Africans.