Algeria's Postponed Elections Dim Future of Democracy in Region

EVEN before the shooting stopped, President Bush hoped aloud that the Persian Gulf war would usher in a new era of democracy in the Middle East. But as recent events in Algeria suggest, democracy may take a little getting used to in this overwhelming Islamic region.

Following two weeks of strikes and protests by Islamic demonstrators that left seven dead, Algerian President Chadli Benjedid last week canceled what would have been Algeria's first multiparty parliamentary elections since independence in 1962. Although the vote has been rescheduled for the fall, the disruption has dimmed the outlook for democratic change in the region.

``The Algerian experience would tend to cast doubt on the possibility of including Islamic fundamentalists in the democratic game, at least for now,'' says one Washington-based expert on North Africa. ``Since they are not democratic, why try to engage them before they make up their minds to play by the rules?''

``We were looking at these elections to provide the second democracy in the Middle East, after Israel,'' adds one US official. ``Now we're not so sure.''

Since gaining independence, nearly all Arab states have been ruled by kings, enlightened despots, or outright tyrants, like Iraq's President Saddam Hussein.

Many have been discredited by failed ideologies and economic policies. Public discontent has led to gradual liberalization in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and especially Jordan, where King Hussein last week signed a National Charter expanding press freedoms and legalizing political parties after a 34-year ban.

But as the halting pace of reform in North Africa and the tenacity of dynastic rule in Gulf states suggest, paving the way for genuine democracy is likely to be a slow, evolutionary process.

One requirement will be the kind of reforms instituted by King Hussein. The harder part will occur as hard-line Islamic elements, which advocate an Islamic theocracy, face up to a difficult choice between doctrinal purity and political pragmatism.

``The parties to the process will have to condition themselves to democracy,'' says the Washington analyst. ``A majority of society is pro-democratic.... They're going to have to adjust their own ideology and tactics. Reality will hit them sooner or later.''

Algeria instituted limited democratic reform after a month of bloody rioting in October 1988.

Capitalizing on discontent stemming from worsening unemployment, housing shortages, and high prices, Islamic parties capitalized on the opening, sweeping to power in a majority of Algeria's municipal governments in elections held one year ago. The elections were a major setback for the National Liberation Front (FLN), the single party that has dominated Algeria since 1962.

But prospects for a repeat performance in the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for June 27 have been dimmed by the mixed performance of the newly-elected Islamic officials, who have sought to impose such elements of Islamic law as dress codes for women.

``That kind of behavior is scary to many Algerians who are very secularized and very modernized,'' says the Washington analyst.

Islamacists have also been hurt by a new electoral law, the catalyst for the strikes that began May 22, that, by doubling the size of the National Assembly and gerrymandering electoral districts, is certain to help the FLN.

Faced with possible defeat, analysts say, leaders of Algeria's Islamic Front launched a series of demonstrations to force postponement of the elections.

``The fundamentalists feel that victory has been stolen from them,'' says Dr. Abdelbeki Hermassi, a sociologist at the University of Tunis. ``Postponing the elections and incurring martyrs might be attractive to them.''

The main stumbling block to democratic reform, say North African analysts, is that the region in general and Islamic elements in particular have no tradition of political pluralism. Many Muslim factions see democracy as a means to the end of political power. Once elected, they will halt the democratic process, these analysts predict.

Such concerns have catalyzed Algeria's influential non-Islamic elites who see Islamicists as a threatening counter-elite that would not share power.

``They don't fight for representation but for a monopoly of representation,'' says Dr. Harmassi.

The decision of Algeria's Islamic parties to disrupt the electoral process has cast Tunisia's caution about legalizing Islamic parties in a more flattering light. Tunisia has banned Islamic parties until they agree to abide by democratic rules and abandon calls for an Islamic state.

``People blame Tunisia for going too slow but that strategy has now been vindicated,'' says Harmassi. Algeria ``needs a transition like Tunisia.''

Unlike Tunisia, which is a secular state, Algeria is Islamic.

As democracy has foundered, the power of the Algerian Army has been thrown into sharp relief. The army consigned itself to a background role when Mr. Benjadid inaugurated democratic reforms. In the wake of the rioting, martial law has been reinstituted.

``The army has always been the arbiter, decisionmaker, and appointer of presidents,'' says Harmassi. ``The army gave democracy a chance to work, but now it has failed.''

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