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Algerians Endure Strife

Recent fundamentalist attacks encourage official crackdown and threaten democracy

WITH the recent wave of fatal attacks against Algerian police, a judge, and tourists - punctuated Dec. 14 by the killing of 12 Christians from the former Yugoslavia - Algerians are rushing further from their goal of democracy. Citizens of the besieged nation seem to support a harsh government crackdown aimed at wiping out the radicalized Islamic movement said to be responsible for the civil strife.

Algerian writer Rashid Boudjedra, for example, finds himself welcoming government protection as he hides from Islamists who have posted an order for his death. A respected progressive voice, Mr. Boudjedra has hitherto opposed all forms of tyranny. In his last novel, he criticized fundamentalists, before that the monopoly policies of the Boumedien period, and earlier, French rule. He recalls how ``I was imprisoned and tortured by the French, and went underground to fight them.''

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This is the Algerian author's fourth flight underground in his determination to remain a free voice. But today's situation is unique. Boudjedra and other voices of liberty and modernity lack the popular base of earlier struggles. Ironically, they must look to their former foe, the government, for a solution.

With the imposition of marshal law across Algeria two years ago, the only apparent government response has been military repression. As a result, up to 12,000 ``terrorists'' are held in desert detention camps said to be the education centers for yet more Islamists. Daily, government forces round up more citizens in an attempt to ``clean up'' the Islamists. No one knows how many suspects have been killed; reports of torture are common. The entire country is under a strict night curfew; military IDs and road checks are the norm.

Intellectuals, many of them Western-educated Muslim men and women, are frequently an important voice at such times. Algeria has many. But the lifting of censorship laws in 1988 hardly gave those champions of free speech time to sharpen their pens. Fourteen newspapers that opened after liberalization now tread very carefully around the issue of Islamic politics; editors and writers have been killed. Dailies refer to arrests of ``terrorists'' - now a pseudonym for the Islamic militants - but they do not condemn government repression.

The intellectuals, who after their heroic role in the liberation of Algeria from French rule, held great promise. They produced many important thinkers such as Franz Fanon. Today they are largely silent. Many have gone into exile abroad and write in French. Others, intimidated by the terror campaign against criticism of Islam, are too frightened to speak. They are further weakened by ideological stagnation.

Until recently, this class promoted socialist ideas as a solution to national ills. Today they have nothing to offer unemployed and despairing Algerians, 75 percent of whom are under 30 years old. Several European television channels received in Algeria bombard the public with violence, sex, and game shows but offer no economic agenda to reverse unemployment and control the national debt.

A linguistics professor admitted that she and other members of Algeria's once-powerful feminist movement ``lost touch with ordinary Algerian women, having failed to address their needs.''

The most dedicated women at the university are not these Western-educated feminists but women students proudly wearing the hijjab, a symbol of membership in the new Islamic movement. One supposes that their male counterparts are moving through the streets and sitting at cafe tables, speaking to tens of thousands of unemployed youths idling their days away. It is not difficult to understand their appeal and how a practical religion can offer self-esteem and hope in such time of despair and confusion.

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Algeria's intellectuals, abroad or underground, condemn today's violence as ``barbaric,'' founded ``in the history of Algeria's struggle for independence.''

We need to recall its recent rise. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), now banned in both Algeria and France, had long been engaged in grass-roots efforts to fight corruption and ineptness and curb Western influence. Their ideological appeal grew after the Arab nations' moral defeat in the war against Iraq, following on the collapse of Russian communism. Led by educated, modern people, these Muslim activists worked within a democratic framework and advanced to stunning success in the first stage of Algeria's 1992 election. They were not militants then. They were not terrorists before their victory was overturned and military rule, backed by the US, was installed.

True, the FIS election win in 1992 forewarned that the next government of Algeria might impose Islamic laws on its population. A frightening thought for many modernists, it evoked images of Khomeini's Iran. But is Algeria's utter economic collapse and this cycle of killing preferable?

Islam is not going to go away. Without an alternate ideology to Western capitalism (which means debt for so many third-world nations) and with eroded Western family values invading their homes, Islam is certain to hold political appeal and potential. Is it not possible that somewhere, among those nations currently experiencing a growth of Islam, one of them may arrive at a workable version of Islamic democracy? The sooner this happens the better for democracy and for countries whose population is Muslim.

The terror now destroying Algeria and threatening Egypt cannot be a model. Islam is neither going to disappear nor lose its political potential. Thus, influential Western nations such as the United States must recognize this and work with it. 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 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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