Algeria's Turmoil

April 09, 1994

Chaos taking over Algeria matters far beyond its borders. It infects France, the second country of millions of Algerians. It is anarchy for export in the Muslim world, exciting fears that Tunisia would be the next domino. It jeopardizes Algeria's export of oil and gas on which much of Europe depends.

The generals ruling Algeria are faithful to a secularist and socialist heritage that brought the country to independence from France. They allowed an unprecedented free election in 1991, which overthrew the founders and gave a majority to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The army quashed the election, outlawed the FIS and jailed its leaders. The FIS changed from a political opposition to a guerrilla movement.

The more its leaders are arrested and killed, the more extremist FIS becomes. A president, government ministers, foreigners, women refusing the veil, intellectuals, political moderates and democrats have all been murdered. Algeria is ceasing to fTC function. Some three million Berbers are growing nationalistic as a way to oppose Arab theocracy. According to some reports, both the army and the FIS are breaking up into fractious components with their own agendas and scores to settle.

It is too late to go back to 1991, start over and honor the election within the constitution existing at the time, with the army remaining its guardian, meaning that Muslim fundamentalists who were elected to achieve economic results could later be overthrown by the same method. But that is what should have been done.

Now the political extremists claiming Koranic justification for whatever they do are more extreme than before. The army has lost confidence in its own ability to pacify the country. Arrests in -- France suggest that part of the insurgency uses safe havens there for logistical support and planning.

It is hard to imagine Algeria, with a century and a half of French influence and with a large and worldly educated elite, succumbing to anti-modernist theocratic tyranny. But it was hard to imagine Iran succumbing to that, and it did. A credible promise to respect the will of the people must accompany government efforts to repress the rebellion, if they are to have any chance to succeed.

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