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West Must Back Reform Efforts in Algeria

Algeria is proving to be a critical test case as the West gropes for ways to respond to growth of political Islam

IN Algeria the undeclared civil war between Islamists and the ruling military junta continues with no end in sight. Some 4,000 Algerians have been killed since 1992, death squads operate freely, and the Army has been weakened by the defection of some 20,000 of its ranks to fight on the Islamists' side. One Islamist newspaper puts the number of Army defectors at 42,000, making the Army's ability to control the country questionable.

Before Algeria reaches a state of complete chaos that could have serious implications for the stability of North Africa, the West should take a hard look at the current situation and articulate clear policies aimed at resuming the democratic process. As it does, it will become clear that fear of Islamist control is unjustified.

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For many Algerians the current strife is reminiscent of the war of independence against the French; the only difference is that this time Algerians are killing Algerians. The military government is using tanks and helicopters to suppress the Islamists' insurgency. In retaliation for the arrests and killing of its members, including those who won parliament seats in the 1991-92 elections, militant members of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) are targeting all those suspected of supporting the military regime, including foreigners. The attacks on foreigners are designed to cripple the Algerian economy. Algerian industry, especially the oil industry, depends very heavily on the technical expertise of the 75,000-person expatriate community.

None of the three presidents who has taken over since the military suspended the results of the 1991-92 election (in which the Islamists were the clear winners) seemed able to restore Algeria to a relative state of peace. This is because the real power holders are the generals. Ironically, their policy of using brute force against FIS has helped FIS's military wing, which is swelling with Army defectors. Perhaps those defectors are the ones who freed more than 1,000 Islamists from prison last month. If defections increase, the Army may not be able to control Algeria, thus risking its disintegration.

Many argue that the current government of Liamine Zeroual could prevent such an eventuality. They point to Mr. Zeroual's willingness to hold talks with the Islamists as one major difference between him and his predecessors. Yet the late President Mohamed Boudiaf also wanted to negotiate; the Army generals, the real power in Algeria, refused, and Boudiaf was removed from the scene. Zeroual may not be another Boudiaf. His ability to force his anti-dialogue prime minister, Ridha Malik, to resign may pave the way for talks between Zeroual's government and FIS. Unlike his predecessors, Zeroual has secured the defense portfolio in addition to being president. Yet there are many hard-liners in the current ruling council that should not be discounted, especially Zeroual's chief of staff Muhammed Lamari and Algeria's strongman Gen. Khalid Nizar.

NEVERTHELESS, democratic compromise may still be possible. FIS now is weakened; further factions have split from the mother organization. Any new elections are unlikely to give FIS the majority it secured in the last elections. Even without the current conflict, FIS was bound to split had it been given the chance to operate within a democratic framework.

FIS is comprised of three major factions. One of these, nationalist but not part of a larger Pan-Islamist movement, is led by a chemical engineer, Abdelkader Hachani. Those under Mr. Hachani's umbrella are intellectuals, nationalists, and ex-socialists who were disappointed in the FLN's approach to solving Algeria's problems. These are generally considered moderate even by their fiercest critics. On the other side there is a traditionalist group that follows Ali Belhadj, a charismatic preacher who is similar in style to the Egyptian cleric Omar Abdul Rahman. Between the two stands a university professor, Abbasi Madani, who is closer to the policies of the mainstream Egyptian Muslim Brothers than to either other group.

After the government arrested the moderate leaders of FIS, including those who won in the last elections, supporters of Mr. Belhadj, including the Armed Islamic Group and those who returned from the war in Afghanistan, gained the upper hand.

Had FIS been given the chance to win, it could have split into as many as three groups along regional, tribal, ideological, and cultural lines. Algeria is a tribal society, and from the third Muslim Caliph (died 656) to recent Jordanian and Yemeni elections, Islam has failed to check the power of the tribe. FIS is unlikely to defy the logic of nearly 1,400 years of Arab history.

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Furthermore, there are two other major parties, the Socialist Forces Front (FSF) and the National Liberation Front (FLN), which came in second and third respectively in the last parliamentary elections. These two parties also oppose the suspension of the Algerian democratic process.

The military leadership is doomed not because of FIS's power but because of its own weakness. First, the majority of Algerians (three-quarters of the 25 million) are under the age of 25 and do not remember the role these generals played in liberating Algeria from the French during the 1950s and early '60s. Second, while most of these generals are French educated, Algeria's young are the product of Arabization and Islamization that started after independence in 1962. FIS's legitimacy, on the other hand, is strong: It represents an indigenous ideology, Islam, and was poised to win the election. The junta's position is made even more difficult by miserable economic conditions, including an unemployment rate of 50 percent among the young.

Zeroual's appointment of a technocrat as his prime minister - Mokdad Sifi, a man with no political agenda - coupled with $1 billion from the International Monetary Fund may be a step toward solving the economic crisis. It remains to be seen whether Zeroual will take serious steps toward talks with FIS, FSF, and FLN to ease the political crisis.

Major Western powers, especially the US and France, have a great interest in supporting Zeroual's reforms. They also must threaten sanctions if Zeroual gives in to the military. Algeria is bound to be a model for neighboring states, especially Egypt. What happens in Algeria could make or break Western policies in North Africa and the Middle East. 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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