West Must Help Algeria Peacefully End Its War

US and others shouldn't emulate France's hard-line stance

THE hijacking of an Air France jet by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and its violent ending represent a dangerous turn in Algeria's two-year-old civil war.

As devastation mounts (more than 30,000 people have been killed since the start of the civil war), Algerians have asked for the international community to get involved and help extract the country from its quagmire.

Previous attempts to draw international attention to Algeria, such as the recent Algerian opposition conference in Rome, were peaceful. Unfortunately, that conference failed because the Algerian military regime denounced it as a form of treason and a threat to Algerian sovereignty. The conference received little attention or support from the international news media or the international community. The failure of these peaceful attempts may have given way to flamboyant, suicidal acts, such as the hijackers' reported intention to blow up the Air France plane over Paris.

In the wake of this terrorism, the United States could be swayed from its position of endorsing reconciliation through dialogue to following France's hard-line support of the military dictatorship against a popular uprising. The US should resist this temptation. It must hold Algerian President Lamine Zeroual to his promise of allowing elections to go forward in early 1995. The military government may use the GIA's terrorist act to renege on its promise.

In Algeria, both the violent Armed Islamic Group and the legal opposition parties agree that Algeria's current military regime is illegal because it aborted the peaceful transfer of power through elections. The military took over after the 1991 election, which gave the Islamists a parliamentarian majority. The pretext was the Army's fear that Islamists would form a dictatorial Islamic state. In reality, since its independence from France in 1962, Algeria has seen only one form of dictatorship: the rule of the Algerian military.

The West should not view the current military regime as guarding democracy against a potential Islamic dictatorship. Western support for the military regime could lead to further attacks on Western targets.

Although the hijacking increased tension between France and the Algerian military government, France remains deeply involved in Algeria. The French government recently supplied the Algerian Army with new helicopters and night vision equipment to hunt the Islamists in the mountains. Yet France's apparent reversal, its temporary suspension of all passenger flights and maritime transport between the two countries, and its call to all French citizens in nonessential positions to leave Algeria, may worsen the crisis. The French message to the Islamists is that violence is the only way to push France into minimizing its relations with the Algerian military. This isn't a policy the US should emulate.

But France is not the only country encouraging the Algerian military to eliminate the Islamists and their sympathizers. Egypt, a major regional player also threatened by Islamic uprising, is pushing Algeria to a policy of total elimination of Islamists, with little regard to whether these Islamists oppose the government by violent or nonviolent means. Egypt reportedly supports the Algerian military with expertise in fighting Islamic radicals. Egypt also recently joined the Maghreb Union (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya), and Egyptian officials have held meetings with their Algerian counterparts to coordinate efforts to combat ``Islamic terrorism.''

Both Egypt and France could put forth persuasive arguments for the US to join their anti-Islamist campaign. Yet ultimately, these regimes are working for their own short-range interests and may be undermining long-range regional stability.

If the US must get involved, it should be on the side of reconciliation within Algeria. It should perhaps push the Algerian issue as an agenda item on the United Nations' list of global crises. After the hijacking development, Algeria may no longer be a containable problem. A spillover of the civil war beyond Algerian boundaries is bound to have implications for both Europe and the rest of the Islamic world.

If Europe follows France's hard-line policies, hijackings and murder will continue. The US should push France to change its policy to one that would put the initiative back in the hands of moderate Islamists and marginalize the GIA. The GIA does not have any social base that supports its violent activities against foreigners. The majority of Algerians support the concept of reaching power through the ballot, not the bullet.

However, the government's continued refusal to negotiate could make GIA radicals heroes to some Algerians. A victory for violent Islamists in Algeria might embolden those in Egypt and encourage violent action as the way to restructure society and obtain power. The US should continue on its current course, emphasizing that it supports the election results.

Democracy and Islam are not incompatible. Creative leaders in both Yemen and Jordan have managed to accommodate the Islamists within the framework of politics. Neither Jordanian nor Yemeni Islamists have attempted to subvert the democratic rule. The US should encourage Algeria and Egypt to transfer power peacefully. When people don't have peaceful means to change their government, violence is the logical course. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles 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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