Algeria Must Include Islamists In Upcoming Political Talks

FINALLY, after a costly conflict between the Algerian government and its Islamist opposition, President Liamine Zeroual has called for a national dialogue to solve his country's political crisis. The crisis began when the Algerian military denied Islamists their election victory 32 months ago.

Yet Mr. Zeroual's call excludes the Islamists from the dialogue, leaving the process void of any substance. His move seems to represent a compromise between President Clinton's call for talks between the Algerian government and Islamists, and France's insistence that there be no dialogue at all.

Instead of being a real step toward easing Algeria's current crisis, the talks are likely to be window dressing. Out of eight Algerian political parties, only five have agreed to meet with Zeroual to discuss the idea. Out of these five, only one party has any political significance: the National Liberation Front (FLN), an organization that ruled Algeria from 1962 to 1991 and ran third in the 1991 elections; the other four parties are small, with limited social bases and little political support. The parties that came in first and second - the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and the Socialist Forces Front (FSF) - are not part of the pre-dialogue negotiations. Many Algerians, including the leaders of the FLN, are suspicious of the results of a dialogue that would exclude Islamists. In an interview, Abdelhameed Mehri, the FLN secretary general, said that FIS's inclusion is crucial to any reconciliation process.

The exclusion of Islamists is worrisome; it mirrors the conditions surrounding a failed dialogue between the Egyptian government and its opponents, which took place two months ago. This suggests that the situations in Egypt and Algeria are feeding into each other. Not only are Islamists in the two countries copying one another's tactics of attacking government targets, the two governments are copying each other's responses to the Islamic challenge, even when those responses have proved ineffective. This locks the two governments in a cycle that deprives them of any creative solutions and blinds them to the basic differences in scale and seriousness between the two situations.

One basic difference between the two situations is that in Egypt, the Islamists did not win an election, and the government did not deny them any victory. Thus, although the Egyptian Islamists have some public support because of widespread sympathy with some of their grievances, they do not have the legitimacy of the FIS, which won a majority in the 1992 elections. Furthermore, although 280 people have been killed in clashes between Islamists and the Egyptian government in the last two years, more than 4,000 people were killed in Algeria in the same period. By all standards, the Algerian situation is a civil war. In Egypt the crisis hasn't yet reached this level.

OF course the two situations share common features: Both governments are riddled with corruption, suffer from an erosion of legitimacy, have political systems dominated by military personnel and their civilian associates, and ignore the demands for power-sharing that improved education and modernization have brought.

Egypt's dialogue failed because the government excluded the most popular and effective social organizations in Egypt: the Muslim Brother hood, which has been providing social services for the Egyptian poor since the 1940s; the Islamic Group, a dominant force in southern Egypt; and the professional syndicates, a training ground for the Egyptian elite. The exclusion of these key players led other parties to boycott the talks. According to Fouad Seraj al-Deen, the leader of the liberal al-Wafd party, which boycotted the Egyptian dialogue, ``It was a dialogue between different factions within the president's ruling National Democratic Party.'' Other Egyptian parties, like the Nasserites, also boycotted the dialogue.

Even the political parties that attended, such as al-Amal, criticized the talks for being dominated by the ruling party and its agenda and not addressing the real issues. Magdi Hussein, one al-Amal party leader who attended the Egyptian forum, described it as ``the dialogue of the deaf.'' The result of this meaningless dialogue was a continuation of the status quo, with the opposition even more cynical than ever about the government's sincerity. In Algeria the dialogue appears to be between the political wing of the FLN and its military wing, represented by the president and the ruling military council. Algeria should have learned from Cairo's mistakes and included the Islamists. Unlike Egypt, Algeria cannot afford to continue the status quo. A real dialogue with Islamists is vital; the problem of Muslim fundamentalism not only affects Algeria but has implications for the whole of North Africa and the rest of the Arab world.

The Algerian president should heed Mr. Clinton's advice and include the Islamists in the dialogue instead of following the French government's advice, aimed at wiping out Islamists by brute force. The brute force that the French now advocate against the Islamists failed when the French themselves used it against the FLN during Algeria's war for independence. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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