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.
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.
The victory of the Islamic Salvation Front will have serious ramifications for both the existing regimes and the secular opposition forces in the Arab world that aspire to a Western-style democracy.
First, it paralyzes the efforts of the secular democratic forces in the Arab world. The Islamic forces have never been tested in power. Unlike secular governments, they thus have no record of abuses, which leads even those who are not fundamentalists themselves to hope that a fundamentalist government might be an improvement. The secular democratic forces, on the other hand, are mistakenly associated with the corrupt secular government. After all, what was supposed to be secular democracy before quickly turned into secular tyranny.
Second, existing regimes may hesitate to hold free elections for fear that they will produce results similar to those of Algeria.
At the time when democratic forces lament their destiny, opposition forces in countries with a strong Islamic presence such as Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Jordan are rejoicing. With the exception of Egypt and Morocco, these are the countries that opposed the war in the Gulf.
The jubilation of the Islamic groups represents a nightmare for the governments of some of these countries. They fear that the Islamic victory in Algeria will encourage the local fundamentalists to pressure for free elections and a larger share of power.
If the existing governments do not respond to these demands as the Algerian governments ultimately did, the fundamentalists may attempt an Iranian-style revolution. This is likely to be the case in Algeria's immediate region.
Tunisia has a very strong Islamic movement, Alnahda Al Islamia, led by Rachid Alghanouchi, whose followers were a source of great agitation against the current Tunisian government. The stand-off between the government and the Islamists in Tunisia might not be solved democratically. Tunisian Islamists appear to be ready for a showdown. The attack that they launched from inside Algeria against Tunisian troops last October makes it clear that these groups are well armed.
The king of Morocco has no choice but to appease the fundamentalists of his country. This is because the king derives his legitimacy from being a descendent from the prophet.
Therefore, all the Maghrab countries with the exception of Libya may soon be under Islamic influence. The danger will be realized if these movements connect with the larger and more mature Islamic movements in Egypt.
To prevent such a connection a buffer has to be created. The only candidate for this buffer is Libya. It would be ironic to see a US policy designed to prevent fundamentalism from reaching Egypt by using Col. Muammar Qaddafi in the same way it used Saddam Hussein to combat the spread of the Islamic revolution from Iran to the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. Although that might be a geopolitical imperative, it seems to be both impractical and too late. First, Qaddafi may refuse to play such a role, since his anti-Western stance is what has spared him a concerted threat from his own fundamentalists.
Furthermore, Egypt is already threatened by the Islamic state of Sudan, the new Islamic base in Africa. Maddani, the leader of the Algerian Islamic movement, Al-Ghanoushi, the leader of the Islamic Nahda in Tunisia, and Hassan Alturabi, the force behind Islamization in Sudan, are all part of this Sudan-based movement. This movement also includes both Shokri and Al Houdaibi, the leaders of the Islamic alliance of Egypt; Alahmar, the emerging Islamic leader in Yemen; and Jordan's Muslim Brothers.
Jordan is also another candidate for Islamic dominance. The Muslim Brothers already occupy 40 percent of the parliamentary seats. The Islamists in Jordan won these seats in spite of government interference.
Under these circumstances, the Arab world seems destined to endure a vicious cycle of violence - the governments will use yet more brutal methods to suppress the opposition and the Islamic forces are likely to respond in kind. Any help from Western powers to protect the existing authoritarian regimes from collapsing will bring about results similar to those in Algeria; it will fuel anti-Western feelings and increase popular support for the fundamentalists.