THE cancellation in Algeria last week of the Arab world's first full-fledged experiment in democracy seems to have steered the region onto a narrow and potentially explosive course.
As the peoples of eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa move toward more representative governments, the Arab world may now be headed for a long period marked by military dictatorships and an increasingly militant Islamic movement.
This, Arab analysts and politicians say, could threaten fledgling democratic experiments and close off prospects for positive change in authoritarian regimes, such as those in Iraq and Syria.
Warning that the Algerian action will further radicalize Islamic fundamentalist movements, analysts and politicians say it could also encourage national military forces to disrupt democratization processes when they see fit. Algeria's military took control just days before the second round of national elections was certain to hand power to the country's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
Islamic fundamentalists have blasted cancellation of elections as a proof that democracy is "a farce" and that pro-Western leaders will not allow Islamic parties to gain power through elections.
"This is a blatant usurpation of [Islamic] power," says Ziyadh Abu Ghaneimah, a prominent member of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood. "The West," he says, "has instigated this action."
The Algerian Army's creation of a new government has also sent shock waves among many Arab intellectuals, who fear a new era of military dictatorships.
"This could lead to a situation similar to that in Latin America ... where military dictatorships interfere to prevent democracy," warned Bourhan Ghalioun, a political sociologist in Paris, on Radio Monte Carlo.
Arabs in the 1950s and 1960s experienced periods of successive military regimes as different Arab nationalist factions vied for power - as in post-colonial Syria and Iraq. In this light, Dr. Ghalion and others argue that the Algerian Army should have given democracy a chance.
But Algeria's recent experience is also a stark reminder that democratic processes can lead to a takeover by Islamic fundamentalists, who have become the most well-organized opposition movement in the region.
Many politicians say their main concern is not that the fundamentalists will seek to change Western lifestyles, but that they might put an end to pluralism once in power. These concerns were strengthened by reports that leaders of Algeria's FIS had stated they were opposed to pluralism.
"They [the Islamic fundamentalists] are using democracy as a means to end democracy," says Samir Habashneh, a Jordanian political activist.
Mr. Abu Ghaneimah counters with the observation that "what happened in Algeria is proof that the minority that advocates pluralism was the party that terminated pluralism."
The Algerian situation confronts pro-democracy Arab forces with a difficult dilemma: whether to support Islamic fundamentalists' right to take over through democratic processes and risk killing future prospects for pluralism, or to confront fundamentalists and jeopardize democracy.
In Tunisia, where fundamentalism has been gaining in strength, the government has insisted that religious groups should not be allowed to function as political parties. Algerians are now considering a similar law.
Jordanians struggling to maintain a fledgling democratic process feel they may soon have to make a choice, since the Muslim Brotherhood is already the strongest force in parliament after winning 22 out of 80 seats two years ago in the first parliamentary elections in two decades.
"They are keeping their heads low, but when they feel that they can win a majority, they will push for an Islamic system where the monarchy and King Hussein have no place," says a former senior Jordanian official. The Brotherhood, which forged a de facto alliance with King Hussein over three decades as both confronted threats from radical pan-Arab nationalists and leftists, has avoided a confrontation with the king. Leader, follower gap
But analysts argue the Brotherhood's leadership, in Jordan and elsewhere, is now under tremendous pressure to follow the lead of the more militant FIS.
The growing strength and radicalization of the Islamic movement are widely viewed as a reaction to the corruption and repression of Arab governments, their failure to grapple effectively with economic crises, and in some instances, analysts maintain, by what is perceived as their acceptance of "control" by the United States following defeat of Iraq.
Some, analysts argue, however, that the Algerian situation could moderate Islamic fundamentalist leaderships, warning them not to push too hard. "The Algerian example has been a warning to both the Islamic fundamentalist leadership and Arab governments," says Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst. In his view, the Algerian Army's reaction was a proof of the bankruptcy of corrupt regimes that are not serious about fundamental democratic changes.