Landslide for Islam

December 31, 1991

Sometimes it's hard to tell the power of religion from mere opposition to secular dictatorship. Were the people wanting to turn Algeria into a theocracy, in the Dec. 26 election? Or just to register disgust with the National Liberation Front, which has ruled since independence in 1962 with increasing corruption and ineptitude?

In any case, President Chadli Benjedid, who gradually conceded democratic forms after 1988 riots, will carry on until 1993, when an election is scheduled. But the parliament will be dominated by the Islamic Salvation Front, which won a stunning victory in the first round of parliamentary voting last week as it had previously in local elections. The coexistence of president and parliament is hard to imagine, though both swear to make it work. As long as the army supports him and the FLN, Mr. Chadli is supreme. The army put on a large display of its presence Sunday and Monday.

With run-off elections due Jan. 16, there is still a chance to deny the Islamic party the two-thirds parliamentary seats needed to amend the constitution. The Socialist Forces Front, a secular opposition group, is appealing to the five million Algerians who did not vote Dec. 26 to do so to stop a theocracy. The Socialists came in a distant second the first round, actually ahead of the ruling party.

The Algerian vote cheered fundamentalists and disturbed secularists in the Arab world. The Islamic showing was in part a reaction to economic bad times. Algeria is deeply in debt, and impoverishing its people in order to repay. It is much engaged with Europe, where four million Algerians work. Algeria exports oil and a great deal of natural gas to France and Italy. Its Muslims are Sunnites. So the people are unhappy, but Algeria is unlike Iran in sect, in economics and in European contacts.

Small wonder the first reaction of fundamentalist leader Abdelkadar Hachani was to reassure Algerians and Europe that change will not be traumatic. He said he would coexist with the president. His real goal is to replace the president in 1993. For that he needs the army to allow the election to be held. Algeria is not going the way of Iran, but it is starting to go its own way. That way is more Middle Eastern and Islamic than the first-generation military socialism of its founders, who were educated in French culture and ideology. Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, Islam as a political movement is still on the rise.

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