THE overwhelming victory by the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria's recent elections sent a shiver through much of the Middle East and beyond.
Moderate, slowly democratizing regimes in Egypt and Jordan witnessed again the power that fundamentalist Islam can exert over disaffected masses of voters. Neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, where similar Islamic movements have been suppressed, were stunned. Spain, France, and Italy worried about a new wave of immigration being set off by the prospect of a rigid sectarian regime.
Islamic politicians in Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and other countries, meanwhile, cheered the Algerian results and predicted that the Koran would soon determine governance throughout the region - if not the world.
Those who anticipate with gloom or glee a fundamentalist tide sweeping the Middle East underplay, however, the differences between Algeria and other countries where Islamic rule holds sway. Though the French were expelled in 1962, their language and culture persist. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians live in France. While many Algerians are inclined toward Western ways, there's also deep resentment over the discrimination often experienced by Arabs in Europe.
The Islamic vote in last Sunday's election wasn't a simple outpouring of adulation for religious leaders, as with Iranians' allegiance to the ayatollah. For one thing, Algerians are Sunni Muslims, usually less inclined to radicalism than the Shiites of Iran or Lebanon. Many Algerians were casting a protest vote against the corruption and mismanagement they associate with the long-ruling National Liberation Front.
Algeria's oil wealth has plummeted since the early '80s. Some 30 percent of the work force in this country of 26 million is jobless. The country's greatest need is investment to build new industries and create jobs. It also needs to curb its population growth.
Will the clerics of the Islamic Front be better able to meet the needs of Algerians? Will a people who just experienced their first free parliamentary election - indeed, perhaps the freest and fairest vote in any Arab land - be willing to trade one kind of restrictive government for another?
Runoff elections for undecided seats come later in January, and secular forces may regroup enough at least to form a credible opposition in parliament. The Army's response to changes in Algeria remains unclear. Islamic leaders haven't clearly defined their program, beyond a commitment to Islamic law. It's too early to assume that Algeria has veered toward some kind of dark age, and that it may take others with it.