Algeria's Mistaken Path

IT is ironic that the stunning success of the Muslim fundamentalists in last month's elections in Algeria caused their own downfall. The cancellation of the second round of voting in Algeria's first free multiparty elections and the takeover by the military could signal the end of democracy in Algeria.

The "forced" resignation of President Chadli Bendjedid is unfortunate. It could scare other Arab leaders from ever embarking on a democratic process. The rest of the Arab world could very well take its cue from what happened in Algeria. If democracy means the rise of Muslim fundamentalists to power, then they can do without it.

The recent arrest of the acting leader of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) is a sign of what is to come. The front will be banned in Algeria, but that's not a solution. It is tantamount to a doctor treating the symptoms of an illness while ignoring the cause. If anything, banning the FIS will play into the hands of the most radical elements in the movement. They will use the crackdown to urge followers to resort to violence, which would force authorities to retaliate further. Civil war could result.

Those who oppose the FIS argue that its victory would have excluded democracy from Algeria. The fundamentalists would have used democracy only to end it, they say. However, this threat was not as significant as it may have appeared.

Even if the FIS had tried to interfere with the democratic institutions, the Army could very well have prevented it. Some have also referred to the very low turnout in last December's election and the 3.2 million votes that the FIS received - 24 percent of the electorate - as being far from a strong mandate.

Unfortunately, low turnouts simply confirm the disenchantment of the vast majority of voters with the choices offered to them.

Those who did not vote chose to do so by their own free will. By not voting, they were in effect expressing their displeasure with full knowledge of the consequences. To reject the choice of those who cast their votes only serves to confirm the suspicion among Muslim fundamentalists that the democratic process is only seen as good if it delivers secular governments.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is reported to have told the fundamentalists in his country that the only road to power is through the ballot box. The message from Algeria, however, tells Muslim fundamentalists in Arab countries otherwise.

Further, when Western as well as Arab governments condone the cancellation of the Algerian elections either openly or in silence, this also plays into the hands of radical fundamentalists who see no alternative but violence.

IN effect, it exposes a certain hypocrisy and double standard on the part of those who believe in democracy - but only if it results in acceptable regimes. It sends a disturbing signal to fundamentalist groups.

It tells them that the democratic process does not work and that the only avenue left is jihad or holy war.

While fear of the FIS is understandable, it hardly justifies annulment of the election. The previous government decided to allow a party based on religion - while knowing full well the ends it sought. The FIS was put on a predictable and violent collision course with the authorities.

True, the FIS agenda called for an Islamic state with the eventual implementation of sharia, or Islamic law. It is also true that women would have been the biggest losers under an Islamic state, with their rights vastly curtailed. Finally, the country as a whole would have experienced an exodus of its best and brightest, further worsening its economic outlook.

Nevertheless, annulling an electoral victory gained through the ballot box hardly helped, either. As a result, Algerians may lose faith in the democratic process.

It may have been wiser to let the election process play itself out. In all likelihood, the FIS's tenure could very well have been a short one, given the complexity of Algeria's economic and social problems and the lack of any credible program to address them.

Having aborted the democratic process, the Algerian authorities must now quickly address the pressing economic problems that face the country. The restless youth is losing patience, and unless results are forthcoming the FIS or its followers will exploit the situation. This time it will not be through the ballot box.

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