THE recent victory by Islamic forces in Algeria's elections has brought to the fore a basic dilemma faced by nearly all Arab states and the Western world.
This dilemma derives from the crumbling of the Soviet empire, which the West deservedly celebrates as the victory of democracy over dictatorship. With such profound change taking place, the Middle East, like other regions, is experiencing strong popular desires for participatory forms of government.
Yet as Algeria's case illustrates, political liberalization in most Middle Eastern countries is likely to help Islamic groups gain increased influence and in some cases control of the state apparatus. It is feared that, once in power, these groups will deprive others of their rights.
For the West, the risk goes beyond the possibility of seeing its democratic ideals distorted by Islamic groups.
Here is the real dilemma: Repressive and undemocratic as they are, most of today's Middle Eastern governments either favor the West or are realistic enough to deal constructively with it. Thus they are open to compromise on such key issues as the Arab-Israeli conflict. By contrast, governments dominated or heavily influenced by Islamic forces are likely to be anti-West and difficult to deal with.
These concerns should not be overlooked. But both Middle Eastern and Western governments risk overreacting to events in Algeria. They may be tempted to try halting democratization in the Middle East.
Indeed, the first reaction, both in Algeria and among neighboring Maghreb governments, has been to deny the Algerian Islamists their victory and to prevent similar groups from testing their electoral strength elsewhere. Secular groups in Algeria succeeded in convincing the Army to intervene.
In short, the lesson drawn from the Algerian experience thus far is that the Middle East is not ripe for democracy - that, therefore, maintaining the status quo will better serve all concerned.
Yet such reasoning, if carried through as in Algeria, could in the long run be dangerous both for the stability of Middle Eastern countries and for Western interests. To begin with, ignoring the existence of an Islamic trend will not eliminate it, but simply push it underground where it will be expressed in sabotage and violence. Such treatment will endow these movements with a halo of martyrdom, thus increasing rather than diminishing their popular appeal.
Almost certainly, the appeal of the Islamists will quickly fade once they participate in government - especially if they are in the majority. No single ideology or group, including Islam and the Islamists, can solve the gigantic social and economic problems faced by nearly all Middle Eastern states. Popular disaffection with a rigid Islamic socioeconomic model will mount, as Iran's experience demonstrates.
Furthermore, the lack of democracy in the region, including the lack of functioning parties, has been a major contributor to the Islamists' rising popularity. They have filled the Middle East's political and ideological vacuum.
There is irony in the current fears about Islam's success at the polls, since nearly all Middle Eastern governments have used Islam as a counterweight to radical secular ideas. In order to balance the Islamists' influence, therefore, more political openness is needed to allow other forces to organize and offer alternatives.
It can be argued, of course, that Islamists who win elections won't let other political forces function. The risk is real but exaggerated. First, in the wake of Iran's revolutionary experience, secular forces elsewhere have no illusions about the Islamists' goals. They are more alert and unlikely to be easily manipulated. Second, in most Middle Eastern countries, even where Islamic forces are strong, these forces are unlikely to win an absolute majority in free elections. Third, once they share or comman d power, these groups will have to come to terms with realities in their respective countries, including economic and technological weaknesses and the need for external help, especially from the West. In time, they will have to accept dialogue and compromise.
The last point is illustrated by Iran, where a revolutionary government has painfully faced the need to mend its fences with the West. Given the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic and political supremacy of the West, other Middle Eastern states will have a much shorter period of adjustment.
Only through a process of experimentation, learning, and adaptation can countries in the region develop a synthesis of their cultural and spiritual values with the requirements of economic and technological development and the demands of living in today's increasingly interdependent world. This synthesis will enable them to develop their own version of participatory politics, loosely defined as Islamic democracy.
This means the West should not equate democracy in the Middle East with the wholesale adoption of Western secular values. Instead, the West should use carrots and sticks to stimulate respect for basic principles and rights. These include the transfer of political power through the ballot box, not once but as a continuing practice.
The West should remember that in the long run its interests in the Middle East will only be safe if they are viewed as legitimate by most of the region's people and not just by narrow elites. Western gains that depend on the favor of elites are unlikely to last long.