THE nations of the Middle East and North Africa, striving for peace and economic integration, are watching helplessly as the conflict in Algeria descends into civil war.
Algeria has been wracked by violence since the government canceled the country's first multiparty legislative elections in January 1992. The Islamists' main party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), finished first in the election's initial round of voting and was set to win a wide majority in the parliament when military-backed powers took control of the government and banned the FIS.
Since then, the power struggle between the French-backed military, which has a weak political arm, and Islamic militants has escalated to dangerous heights.
``I think the role of the military will soon become more overt, and it will effectively take over the government,'' says Mamoun Fandy, a political scientist at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
``This will make the situation even worse than it is now and make a violent take-over by the Islamists more achievable than ever before,'' says Mr. Fandy, an Egyptian who lives in the United States.
It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 people have died in the insurgency. The intensity of fighting - and deaths - has risen dramatically during the past few weeks as tensions have risen.
Extreme violence on both sides, and the targeting of journalists by Islamic extremists, has caused most foreigners and many Algerian intellectuals and journalists to flee. At least 28 journalists - and 69 foreigners - have been killed. An estimated 200 Algerian journalists, and almost all foreign journalists, have left.
In November, the government closed five newspapers on the grounds that their reporting aided Islamic insurgents of the Islamic Salvation Army and the Armed Islamic Group, which are fighting for an Islamic state in Algeria.
Algerian President Liamine Zeroual, backed by France, has promised elections by the end of 1995 but the security situation has already unravelled to such a degree that diplomats say a ballot would have little meaning.
France has a long colonial history with Algeria. It annexed Algeria in 1842, retaining control over it until 1962. When Islamists came close to gaining power in 1989, possibly spurring a massive migration of Algerians to France and threatening its crucial oil and gas contracts, France began backing the military government.
``As long as France is able to intervene on the present basis, the situation in Algeria will deteriorate,'' says Hugh Roberts, a researcher for the Geopolitics and International Boundaries Research Center at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.
Mr. Roberts adds that US rhetoric on Algeria reflects a more rational approach, but there is little follow-through action. The US has been urging the Algerian government to seek a compromise solution with the relatively moderate FIS, but a brief dialogue initiated by President Zeroual in September soon broke down.
Roberts says the problem in getting a dialogue going between the parties in Algeria did not lie with the opposition parties, which were able to find considerable common ground at a November meeting in Rome. It lay with the hard-line military faction of the government, led by Army Chief of Staff Muhammed Lamari, which has received paramilitary support from France.
The Rome meeting took place after a Roman Catholic peace group invited the government and opposition groups to negotiate their differences. Members from 12 Algerian opposition groups met with mediators, but the government boycotted the meeting.
Western intelligence sources have confirmed recent deliveries of French helicopters and night-sight equipment to the Zeroual regime.
``If France's main concern was a flood of Algerian refugees, it should be supporting policies which would create the most rapid return to stability,'' Roberts says, noting that experience has shown that cracking down on extremism merely gives it new life.
Future of a forgotten war
The outcome of Algeria's ``forgotten war'' will have a profound effect on peace efforts in the Middle East, the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in North Africa, and Europe's stability.
A possible outcome of the current struggle is a takeover of Algeria by Islamic militants. Such a takeover would give militant Islam its first direct foothold in the Mediterranean and would bolster the rise of Islamic fundamentalism that already wields massive power in Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan.
Professor Fandy says that the decision last month by Egypt to apply to join the Maghreb - a loose union of North African states including Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia - indicates that Algeria is closing ranks with Egypt, which itself is facing a growing threat from Islamic extremists.
``Egypt wants to coordinate with the Algerian government to settle the problem of Islamism they face,'' Fandy says, adding that Algeria is repeating the Egyptian exclusion of Islamic groups from its political dialogue.
He says that the closer liaison between Egypt and Algeria is likely to bolster the hard-line approach to dealing with Islamic militants rather than apply any of the lessons that Egypt has learned from not bringing key Islamic groups into a dialogue.
At a 52-nation Islamic summit meeting in Casablanca Dec. 13 and 14, a resolution was adopted calling for ``illuminated Islam exempt of extremism or fanaticism.'' The statement also condemned state-sponsored terrorism. ``What is called fundamentalism is, in fact, the exploitation of our moral values for political purposes,'' said Algerian Foreign Minister Salah Dembri.
US officials, who had put their hopes in the short-lived dialogue between the Zeroual government and FIS leaders, are hoping that France or the European Union will intervene.
``It's going from bad to worse,'' said a Western diplomat in Paris.
``I am worried that the situation will spiral out of control completely unless the Europeans get some kind of mediation going,'' the diplomat said.
``At the moment Europe is deferring to French leadership on the issue - and there isn't much,'' he added.
The deteriorating conflict in Algeria came under the spotlight in early December at the 53-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Budapest where the foreign ministers of Algeria, Israel, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia discussed forming a Mediterranean security group.
``Algeria is a much more complicated problem than other North African countries,'' said an Israeli Foreign Ministry official.
``The Algerians are very tempted by a regional arrangement ... but it looks as though we have a few more years of growing Islamic fundamentalism to deal with,'' the official said.
Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco are nervous about the potential spill-over effects of an Islamic revolution in Algeria.
Egypt, which has Islamic Sudan on its southern border, is already facing serious tourism losses as a result of recurring attacks on tourists by militant Islamic groups.
Tunisia, which like Morocco has embarked on a program of economic and political reform and recently established diplomatic ties with Israel, is also vulnerable to the spillover of an Islamic takeover in Algeria.