WASHINGTON -- The turmoil in Algeria confronts the United States with the same unhappy choice it faces elsewhere in the Middle East: Groping moves toward democracy may yield an anti-American product more frightening than what they replace.
This dilemma was evident yesterday in the U.S. response to Algeria's weekend military takeover and cancellation of Thursday's runoff elections in the face of an impending victory at the polls by Islamic fundamentalists.
The U.S. reaction fell short of the ringing support for democracy that U.S. officials have directed elsewhere.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler said the United States viewed the interruption of Algeria's democratic process "with concern."
"We commend the fact that Algeria has made impressive strides toward democracy in recent years, and we hope a way can be found to resume progress as soon as possible," she said.
As analysts outside government voiced fears of a bloody military crackdown, she urged that a peaceful resolution be found "in a calm manner."
But she declined to call for immediate restoration of the runoff parliamentary elections, which were scheduled for Thursday before they were canceled. And she said that the High Security Council system set up over the weekend, controlled by the military, conforms with the Algerian constitution.
"We haven't been pushing the Kuwaitis, the Saudis or anyone else [to democratize]," said William Quandt of the Brookings Institution.
There is a "condescending" view in Washington that the Middle East is not ready for democracy and that elections could lead to demagogy, he said.
"Democracy never comes easy, without surprises in its wake," he noted.
There are also higher strategic priorities for the region, including oil, the Arab-Israeli peace process and fear over the spread of nuclear weapons, he said. And there is an attitude here that "we can't be the ones to impose the standards."
Both the elections themselves and the fundamentalist victory are troubling to the nearby North African rulers of Morocco and Tunisia, said Robert Satloff, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The arms-length U.S. treatment of the Algerian military was in fact more balanced than might be expected, given the frequently voiced Washington fears of Islamic fundamentalism, said Lisa Anderson, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.
Acceptance of the military takeover by the United States and France, Algeria's former colonial power, would doom democracy in Algeria, she said.
Ms. Tutwiler pointedly avoided repeating U.S. worries about fundamentalists.
"It is important not to generalize about such a complicated subject," she said.
"The term 'Islamic fundamentalism' is used in different ways by different people. It embraces a wide variety of religious, political and social concepts. This is not a single, coordinated international movement."
She noted that the United States has had "productive and excellent" relations with Muslim and other governments that are "deeply observant."
But the anxiety persists, fed by the assertions of fundamentalist leaders, that Islamic fundamentalism and democracy are themselves incompatible.
"The logic of Islamic rule," Mr. Satloff said, suggests that "there is no legitimate alternative government."