Algeria's War of Generations

February 11, 1992

The Algerian army's suppression of the Islamic Salvation Front is an attack not only on democracy but also on demographics. Numbers are on the side of the suppressed. So is time.

The older generation of people who matter in Algeria are French-educated, worldly and secular. They would dread a society governed by the sharia, or traditional Islamic law, that would banish women from work and view, forbid alcohol and impose punishments for crimes that seemed just many centuries ago but do not now.

The younger generation is more religious, Arab and Middle Eastern, less French and tolerant. Theirs is a youth rebellion against permissiveness and against European-ness, inspired by the diminished welcome Algerians find in Europe.

These are chickens home to roost, an end result of the revolution against French colonialism, based on French political values, that produced Algeria's independence in 1962. With time and nationalism, the French culture was thrown off and the indigenous Algerian culture reasserted itself.

When the regime arrested two leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front in June, Abdelkader Hachani became acting leader and, based on the first round of parliamentary elections (the second was never held), stood to become prime minister. He is a petrochemical engineer, a fundamentalist teacher -- and 36 years old. His father is a secular opponent of his views.

Since the military interim regime arrested the Islamic Salvation Front leadership, as well as journalists, others have taken their place. The resistance which was not immediate grew until the regime suppressed the party, on Sunday, and resisters murdered police, yesterday. It may be that government firmness will quell dissidence. So far, it has done the reverse.

There is a good deal to worry about in this nation of 25 million that provides oil, gas and workers for southern Europe. It is reportedly working toward nuclear weapons capability, with a China-supplied reactor. The fundamentalist party that was cheated of victory has not been candid. Voters knew it meant to end corruption and socialism. They do not know if it would ban wine, force women behind the veil or suppress opposition -- all implied by its rhetoric.

It is easy for outsiders to preach compromise. Also irrelevant. Algeria's revolution of the 1960s is trying to devour its children of the 1990s, but there are too many. Better to come to terms with them, with rules by which they agree to be overthrown by ballot should the people wish.

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