WHEN Belaid Abdessalam, one of Algeria's best known politicians, lost to an unknown candidate from the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) at parliamentary elections in 1991, he explained his humiliating defeat as inevitable.
"I wasn't beaten by a political party," he complained to his friends. "I was beaten by God."
How many politicians would willingly enter such unequal combat? Yet this is the prospect facing secular democrats across the Arab world, who know, even as they press for greater political freedoms, that they are likely to be outstripped in any vote by their popular Islamist rivals.
This poses a dilemma: Secularists are caught between their commitment to democracy and their concern that once in power, even those Islamic groups that have espoused democracy would abandon it. The fruit of their struggle, in other words, would shrivel to "one man, one vote, once."
"It is very difficult to verify the Islamists' credibility by experience," argues Ibrahim Nugud, a former communist leader in Sudan. "If a virgin trusts her boyfriend, it's too late to do anything about it if she was wrong."
Moderate Islamists who insist on their democratic faith are asking for that trust from secular authorities across the Middle East. "We are opposed to violence for religious, political, and legal reasons," says Adel Hussein, editor of an Islamist newspaper in Cairo. "But the point is we are losing ground. We are committed to the peaceful road to reform, but it looks blocked, and young people are leaving our party" for more violent groups.
"Even if there are some people with a rigid interpretation of Islam, if the atmosphere were democratic we could expose their odd views, and the moderate, rational interpretation of Islam would attain a majority," Mr. Hussein predicts. "But whether we are rational or idiots, we are all excluded from participation."
Ishak al-Farhan, leader of the mainly moderate Muslim Brotherhood's political wing in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), echoes that appeal. "When the social and political context in a country is normal and relaxed, the moderate interpretation of Islam will prevail. But when Muslims are oppressed, there will always be militants who see jihad [holy war] as the solution."
Some secular Arab politicians and analysts are persuaded by these arguments. "There must be room in Egypt for Islamic Democracy, like Christian Democracy in Europe," says Mohammed Sid Ahmed, a political commentator. "And the people who say they are advocates of this are not helped by the government. Clamping down will prove to be counterproductive, and the only way to counter the Islamists is to open up a democratic movement."
"If you keep isolating the Islamists, they might become introverted, anti-society, and anti-progress," worries Taher al-Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister. "If you try to assimilate them cautiously, to integrate those elements that believe in sharing power, you might succeed in rationalizing them."
Others are not so sure. "Once you start an Islamic movement, you automatically get fundamentalists as the discharge in the end," Mr. Nugud argues. "If it was justified to fight communists in the United States by all methods because they were undemocratic, that must apply now to the fundamentalists."
"Encouraging moderate Islam is not wise," adds Hussein Amin, a former Egyptian ambassador to Algeria. "It creates a broad base of religiosity from which the young easily jump to extremism whenever they feel economic or social grievances. I believe freedom should not be given to the enemies of freedom."
That hard line is the one taken by the Algerian government since it dissolved the FIS by decree after annulling the 1991 elections. In the first round of the parliamentary poll in December 1991, the FIS won 188 seats, compared to the 43 taken by the other 49 parties between them, and was poised to complete its landslide victory in the second round. That victory was forestalled when the authorities suddenly canceled the elections.
Mr. Abdessalam, though defeated at the polls, is now Algeria's appointed prime minister, and the FIS has turned to armed attacks against the government.
As the authorities seek a way of breaking Algeria's 16-month political logjam, they are clinging to the principle that "the ban on using religion for political ends is non-negotiable," says Slimane Chikh, a presidential adviser. "The debate [on Algeria's future] is a question of political bargaining, and should not be invaded by religion."
"This is a worrying move in policy," says a Western diplomat here, "because it means you are not going to compromise with a huge strand of opinion in the country. So what are you going to do with those people?"
Officials say they plan to use the breathing room afforded by the suspension of elections to win over the 3.5 million people who voted for the FIS. "We have to move the mass of the people over from the FIS by cleaning the country up, punishing the thieves [accused of government corruption], moralizing society, and creating real conditions for change," Interior Minister Mohammed Hardi says.
The FIS enjoyed such massive support, Algerian and foreign observers agree, mainly because it offered the clearest and fiercest opposition to a one-party system that had brought the country to economic ruin and driven millions into poverty.
"The government has to give itself time to correct the economic situation," the diplomat says. "The question is whether that is feasible. I think it will take a long time, and I don't see the economy turning around as they expect it to."
Such doubts have led some secular political leaders to advocate bringing the Islamists - at least those who renounce violence - into a broad debate on Algeria's future. "We cannot deny the phenomenon" of the Islamists' popularity, argues Abdelhamid Mehri, secretary-general of the National Liberation Front, the ruling party for nearly 30 years.
"The longer they hesitate in applying democracy, the more the authorities isolate themselves from the people," Mr. Mehri adds. "Regimes weaken themselves by saying that there can be no democracy in the face of such a phenomenon."
Despite their distaste for Islamist politicians, a growing number of Algerians feel that "one essential condition for a way out of the crisis is a common code," between Islamists and secularists, as Nadji Safir, a political analyst, puts it. "We have no common code that allows us to speak the same language."
Such a common code exists already in Jordan, where Islamists constitute the largest bloc in parliament, and where the government has taken a very different approach to the rise of Islamic political activism.
"Our policy is not one of confrontation or alliance, but of accommodation," explains Ibrahim Ezzadin, a close adviser to the prime minister. "There is real consultation all the time between [the Muslim Brotherhood] and the government."
Such an attitude is easier to adopt in Amman than in Algiers, because the Brotherhood has long been an accepted part of the Jordanian establishment. "We are a natural body, not a sudden or abrupt appearance," says Dr. Farhan, leader of the Brotherhood's IAF.
At the same time, unlike Algeria, where the end of nearly three decades of one-party rule meant the virtual collapse of the state, Jordan enjoys "two very strong institutions, the Monarchy and the Army, that protect the Constitution," Mr. Ezzadin points out.
Moreover, with King Hussein claiming descendancy from the Prophet Muhammad, "no one here can out-Islam the King," says Mustafa Hamarneh, head of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies.
In fact, given the IAF's "intention and practice of not being in conflict with the government and the official system," Farhan says,
many observers do not expect the party to punch its full weight at next November's poll.
"If I were in the Brotherhood's shoes," says political analyst Labib Kamhawi, "I would not try to control the next parliament, because that might trigger a backlash by the establishment, or run the risk of actually being asked to form the government. And then what would they do with the economy, or the Middle East peace process?"
Eyeing both the Jordanian model, seen as too unique to be widely emulated, and the Algerian model, which everybody wants to avoid, Arab democrats are asking the ultimate question: To what extent are democracy and Islam really compatible?