They Don't All Have to Become 'Irans'

September 01, 1995|By JONATHAN POWER

London -- If the bomb that was laid last Saturday on the track of the high speed Paris-to-Lyon train, probably by Algerian Islamic militants, hadn't failed to detonate, France would now be in a political uproar. There would be no doubting that Algeria's civil war, for the second time in four decades, had spilled over into France. The threat remains. What didn't happen last week may happen next.

This is the penalty France now pays for the miscalculations of the Mitterrand presidency, which made the fatal error of backing the generals in its former colony against the would-be democrats, when it appeared that a majority of the voters might support the fundamentalist ticket.

It is going to be difficult to turn back the clock to January 1992, when a non-violent transition in political cultures seemed possible -- until the military chiefs aborted a general election. As Algeria's civil war grows, France will see more innocent deaths on the streets of its major cities and transport networks. Algeria now seems doomed to become the next Iran.

But this doesn't mean that ''Irans'' must follow in Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine or Saudi Arabia (which, by most people's standards, is fundamentalistic already). Fundamentalism can co-exist with a secular state, even with a democratic order.

One can see the possibilities most distinctly in Jordan, where King Hussein has shown, over many years, how to co-opt the energies and causes of the Islamists without jeopardizing his own rule. At the same time, wittingly or not, he is laying the foundations for a transition to a full democracy -- which could be fundamentalist-dominated or, more likely, with a fundamentalist minority. In the process of being openly politically active the Islamists have shown that they don't have all the answers. They used Jordan's system to sweep to power in the 1989 parliamentary elections, but King Hussein used the system to undercut them in 1993.

Hussein's achievement has been eclipsed by the bad feelings generated over his neutrality during the Persian Gulf War. Now that has been repaired, not least by his recent decision to harbor top-ranking defectors from Saddam Hussein's inner circle. It is time for outsiders to take another look.

In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood has long been moderate and anti-terrorist, happy to accept the legitimacy of Hashemite rule.

In the 1970s the Brotherhood built its network of social welfare institutions which gave it the opportunity during the recession of the 1980s to develop into a populist movement, as income disparities between the well-to-do and the poor widened. It campaigned against unemployment, corruption, mismanagement and waste.

Parliament is a sometime thing in Hussein's kingdom. Between 1967 and 1989 there were no elections. Even today, with a vociferous and active parliament, all important policy decisions remain the prerogative of the palace.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Brotherhood and the independent Islamists recently controlled the largest bloc of seats in Jordan's lower house gives them a degree of political leverage that other Islamist movements in the Arab world lack.

In 1991, Hussein brought Islamists into the cabinet, rewarding them with key social portfolios. But in the 1993 general election, the Islamists lost a third of their seats, partly because the electoral rules had been changed and partly because they had performed poorly on economic reform and squandered political capital on unpopular issues, such as trying to ban alcohol.

Important lessons may be learned from the Jordanian experience. In Egypt, reformers have long argued for the Brotherhood to be fully legalized as a bulwark against the growing violence-orientated Islamist movements.

Saudi Arabia and Tunisia should reach out similarly. In Tunisia, all the wrong moves are being made, as if its leadership is determined to repeat the mistakes of its Algerian neighbor's clamp-down.

The Palestine Liberation Organization would be smart to neutralize Hamas, the militant Islamist movement that is doing all it can to wreck peace progress with Israel. Yasser Arafat should reach out to more moderate Hamas members by offering a power-sharing agreement in the elections planned for year's end.

As long as Islamists accept the principle -- as they do in Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt, and did in Algeria -- that they will give up power if defeated, there is every reason to let them have a shot at winning an election. All the incumbents have to fear is fear itself -- and, of course, losing the perks of power.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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