US Vote Cheers Arabs Yearning for Democracy

Anti-American diatribes give way to congratulations - a letter from North Africa

`IF you are American, then if you allow me I have one thing I'd like to say to you before you go," says the earnest young waiter in an Algiers restaurant.

Oh no. Just 18 months ago, such a statement anywhere across North Africa was the opening of an impassioned diatribe against "America's war" on Iraq that millions of Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians had on the tips of their tongues.

But this time it is not outrage that follows: "I wish to congratulate you on the election of President Bill Clinton," the waiter says. "I think such a young president will be good for America," he smiles, "and I hope he will be good for Algeria."

The young Algerian's words are an indication of the inspiration and fascination that last week's elections in the United States held for a region that not too long ago was awash in anti-US hostility. During the Gulf war, no part of the Arab world was more vehement in its anti-coalition fervor than the Maghreb, and much of the fury was directed against the US and President Bush.

But the election of Gov. Bill Clinton has won America a new measure of goodwill in North Africa, judging by the dozens of enthusiastic comments encountered by this visiting American.

Hundreds of Moroccans joined American expatriates at embassy-sponsored receptions in Casablanca and Rabat, where large-screen televisions offered CNN's election coverage.

But Moroccans didn't have to venture into a fancy hotel ballroom to follow the results: National television had its own full night of election coverage.

"The United States is the only superpower now, so we have no choice but to take an interest," says Touria Serraj, an official with Morocco's Foreign Trade Ministry who attended the Rabat election night. "For a people still building their democracy, it was a valuable experience." (Algeria's first election process was aborted last year as the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge of victory; Morocco plans elections in December.)

IN Algeria, where the results could be watched all night on French television, Clinton's election reminded more than one observer of another American president who still holds a special place in the nation's memory.

"The New J. F. Kennedy," blared the Algiers daily, Liberte, in three-inch type. "We think Clinton might be a second Kennedy," says Lakhdar, an Algiers cabdriver. "We may not always agree with US action, but we will never forget that Kennedy supported our independence [from France]," he says. "We hope Clinton, too, will work with Algeria."

Little is said of Mr. Bush's new world order - just as little thought is given to Saddam Hussein. Algerians seem unaware the Iraqi president held a rally to celebrate Bush's defeat.

Nadji Safir, an Algerian sociologist, says he thinks the Democratic victory may mark the dawn of a very different new world order, where environmental concerns and socially conscious development replace the "anachronism" of the free market taken to excess.

"The Clinton-Gore victory strikes me as reflective of a new vision," he says, "After a dozen years of Reagan-Thatcher thinking that favored the law of the market, we are going toward something more balanced, more globally sensible."

Not everyone here is so optimistic. Some journalists evoke what they consider the shockingly "show-biz" side of US elections, while others warn their readers not to expect any positive change from the new Democratic administration. Describing Bush and Clinton as kif kif - Arabic for two peas in a pod - the Algiers weekly Libre Algerie wrote, "It would be illusory for the peoples and countries of the third world to expect any positive changes in their favor."

Still, many North Africans find something to emulate in a democratic process they understand a little better after Nov. 3.

"I would be satisfied if Morocco had just 10 percent of the democracy America has," says Kamal, a student attending the election-night reception in Rabat. There, the last word is from a businessman, visibly moved as he watches Bush's concession speech at nearly 4:30 a.m.

"The most powerful man on Earth has just lost his battle, and his first response is to call on the country and his people to stand behind his rival," he says, turning to two friends.

"That's a beautiful lesson for all of us."

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