One of the most adventurous experiments in democracy was snuffed out when the military strong men of Algeria forced the resignation of President Chadli Benjedid and canceled the parliamentary run-off elections scheduled for Thursday. The result was to quash the will of the Algerian electorate this year to have an Islamic government, dedicated to the law called sharia, to rid the country of its one-party socialism and corruption.
Good motives based on Western liberal values can be ascribed. But they are not why the colonels acted. People who have been in power in a one-party dictatorship since its independence in 1962 refused to give it up. They feared an end to their power, wealth and privilege. They had no democratic mandate and no interest in democracy.
That said, the issue was not simple. The Islamic Salvation Front ++ (FIS) prodded President Benjedid into granting democracy in stages, against the beliefs and will of many in his National Liberation Front (FLN). But statements by the FIS leader, Abdelkader Hachani and his colleagues cast doubt whether, once in power, they would be willing to lose it by similar democratic means. They see two sides to an issue, theirs and Satan's.
It's hard to tell whether FIS popularity, nearly half the total vote out of 49 contending parties, represents the Islamic devotion of the Algerian people or their disgust with the FLN, which was collapsing like an East European Communist party. The FIS ran against inefficiency and corruption, making secular economic promises on which its performance could be measured. And if it crusaded against such Western mores as women's liberation and alcohol that Algerians pick up in France, the FIS also professed an interest in capitalism and foreign investment.
President Benjedid, as the Gorbachev of North Africa, was planning to retain presidential power while the FIS took parliamentary power and began passing laws. His toleration of Islamic demands led to his downfall. The thwarted fundamentalists -- authentic Algerian nationalists and not transplants from elsewhere -- have never held power, so what they would do with it remains unknown.
Algeria is a major supplier of gas and oil to France and Italy. Some 800,000 Algerians live in France. The political currents of -- Algiers have strong echoes in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. So what happens in Algeria matters greatly in North Africa and southern Europe. It is also a harbinger for many places where democracy is tried, alternatives having failed, but where widely
held traditions are not democratic.