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The Algeria Laboratory

April 14, 1994



THE resignation Monday of Algerian Prime Minister Redha Malek is supposed to allow dialogue between new President Liamine Zeroual and leaders of the popular but outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). If so, this would be a positive step. Algeria's social order has deteriorated since 1992, when the military-backed government canceled elections that FIS was about to win and threw the FIS leaders in jail - where they still languish. This act forced the opposition underground and gave rise to extremists.

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Like Egypt, Algeria faces enormous tensions between a grassroots Islamic movement and an authoritarian regime. Some 4,000 people have been killed since 1992, and the extremist wing of the FIS is carrying out a policy of assassinating journalists, intellectuals, foreigners, and others who stand for liberal or cosmopolitan values. To this struggle there is no end in sight.

Ironically, the ruling National Liberation Front party is firmly rooted in the anti-French liberation movement of 1962, when Algeria fought the bloodiest war for independence in Northern Africa. But the new generation of Algerians - three-fourths of the 25 million population are under 25 - identify more with Islam than with old FLN dreams of pan-Arab nationalism. They also find themselves unemployed, with housing shortages, and in a country saddled with $27 billion in debt due to FLN mismanagement.

Prior to Mr. Malek's resignation Algeria secured a $1 billion International Monetary Fund loan; this will ease the economy for now.

But little real progress can come without an opening in Algiers to participation from all legitimate political players. Algeria could become a positive model for democratic evolution in Islamic states, a laboratory - rather than another example of chaos and rule through suppression and brutality. In fact, almost alone among the Islamic movements in Northern Africa, FIS has a serious political platform. The rallying of Algerian women against fundamentalism shows a diverse population desiring expression.

In 1992, when Algeria was denied its democratic process, the United States said little, fearing Islamists. The US must reverse that blinkered approach and encourage participation. Examples in Jordan and Yemen show that even Islamists can be voted out.