Saudi Bomb Highlights How Arabs Remain Split on Curbing Islamic Foes
Three North African nations, especially Tunisia, provide lessons in ways to counter violent radicals
The Islamic movement that has roiled the Mideast for over a decade struck at Americans last week with the bomb in Saudi Arabia that left 19 Americans dead. But for those in the Arab world, radical Islamic fundamentalism has become an everyday concern - with little consensus yet on how to counter it.
From Riyadh to Rabat, Arab leaders are still searching for ways to save their regimes from subversive and violent Islamists. Only one nation in the region, Tunisia, has shown strong success. But it has come at a great price: The government holds about 1,000 political prisoners, according to human rights group Amnesty International.
Saudi Arabia's troubles with radical Islamists have been minor compared with Egypt and Algeria, which have endured the most violence in the highest-profile struggles against those who combine religious fundamentalism with a quest for political power.
For these nations, Tunisia's example provides little solace. Its tiny land mass and small population give its government easy access to all citizens, including the extremists - a luxury the others don't have.
Consequently Egypt and Algeria have vacillated between two schools of thought with only limited success. One school is the hard-line approach of Tunisia. The other is political - seeking to work with moderate Islamists where possible.
Halting between these two, "Egypt has barely managed to have the government's hand above the extremist hand," says Taatahsem Basheer, a senior fellow at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington.
In Egypt, a critical country from the West's perspective because of its longtime role as anchor in the Mideast peace process, up to 1,500 suspects are thought to have been detained by police since gunmen of the radical Gama'a Al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) in April massacred 17 Greek tourists outside a Cairo hotel, mistaking them for Israelis.
"Since 1993, the approach that views all the Islamic groups as the same and advocates that they should be kept on the run has been dominant," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, former adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and now a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.
But Mr. Ibrahim argues that this is the wrong approach and says Egypt should take a divide-and-conquer strategy. "You have to isolate the militants by bringing in the moderates," Ibrahim says. "The government hasn't consolidated a consensus against the Islamic groups."
Many in Egypt believe the hard-line tactics of harassing and torturing political prisoners has only marginalized moderates, strengthening the resolve of groups like the Gama'a Al-Islamiya, and forcing the government to respond forcefully.
The Egyptian government is "enslaved," says Egyptian political columnist Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, a moderate commentator. "It's not free to act because of its own vested interest in not [letting] people open their mouths."
Algeria, however, once tried a more moderate approach. But after extremists won elections in 1990 and 1991, the military-backed government annulled the elections and undertook an ongoing war against them. Most recently, seven French Trappist monks were killed by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).
Bolstered by last November's election victory, Algeria's President Liamine Zeroual has chosen not to talk with the Islamists at the heart of the country's crisis.
And Algeria's security forces took the election result as a mandate to annihilate the GIA and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which have been waging a guerrilla war against the government and its supporters.
This pressure has split both Islamic groups into two factions, one side seeking dialogue, the other vowing to fight on. Meanwhile, the violence continues at the rate of 100 deaths per week, according to Western diplomats.
In 1991, as Algeria was on the verge of Islamic takeover, President Mubarak advised its government to follow the example of neighboring Tunisia: undermine the extremists by denying them a political voice.
Tunisia benefits from being a small country with a 70,000-strong security force that can comb the countryside. "We knew from the start that any mistakes would make us pay dearly," says Ousama Romdani, the government spokesman. "But we are not a police state."
In December 1990 the government claimed to have uncovered an Islamist plot to seize power. Some 8,000 Islamists were imprisoned, 200 cases of torture were identified by Amnesty International, and the disintegration of the Islamist "Al-Nahda" (Renaissance) organization began.
In Egypt, such a crackdown would be impossible. In Algeria, the killing continues.
Mubarak is influenced by Tunisia's model, even though suppression comes easier in a country of 9 million people, compared with Egypt's 60 million.
The denial of jobs to Islamist supporters in Tunisia is now thought to affect up to 10,000 people. "It's in the interest of everybody that the government opens a dialogue," says Moncef Ben Salam, a math professor and former member of Al-Nahda whose house in the southern town of Sfax is continually surrounded by police. He was among those accused of the 1990 plot.
Although Tunisia's approach has brought short-term gain, if Mr. Salam is any indicator, the long-term outlook may prove difficult: "There are thousands like me who are not allowed to work," says Salam. "They have nothing left in their lives. They have been thrown into the fire. Revolts don't happen suddenly. They happen little by little."