Is Algeria About To Become The Next Iran?

The bitter conflict between the military regime and Muslim militants seems to be pushing Algeria inexorably toward an Islamic government. That is a big concern for the West and its Arab allies. Experts think an Islamic regime in Algeria would have great influence on Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond, perhaps threatening the promising Arab-Israeli peace process.

An Islamic Algeria or a civil war there would also be ominous for Europe. As many as 1 million "boat people" and other refugees could head for France, Italy, and Spain, by one estimate. Even if that number is exaggerated, a fundamentalist revolution just across the Mediterranean could cause a wave of xenophobia in Europe and strengthen extremists there.

Heading off such disasters has become a major preoccupation of Western diplomats. But there's deep division between the U.S. and ex-colonial ruler France over how to do it. The French back Algeria's military government, urging it not to negotiate with Islamic groups unless they renounce terrorism. The fundamentalists' killing of five Frenchmen in Algeria in early August has hardened the French line.

YEN FOR YEN. In France, officials have been rounding up suspected Algerian militants and closing their publications, risking a terrorist backlash. France is also pouring $1.1 billion a year in aid into Algeria, hoping a stronger economy will defuse unrest. Paris wishes its allies would also send money--especially Japan, Algeria's second-largest creditor. "We're frustrated that others won't help," says a French government official.

Washington, once a backer of the Algerian regime, has switched course. Seeing that the militants may win, it has opened contacts with them and is urging negotiations. "If there isn't a dialogue that draws in moderates, there will be steady deterioration," says a White House policymaker.

Many experts concur. "The world can live with a fundamentalist Algeria," argues Dirk Vandewalle, a Mideast scholar at Dartmouth College who says Algeria's Sunni Moslem leaders are more bourgeois than Iran's Shiite mullahs. He notes that the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was about to democratically win power in 1992 when the military stepped in.

Not all agree. There's "no such thing as a moderate fundamentalist," says U.S. Mideast specialist Daniel Pipes, who complains that Washington is foolishly undermining the Algerians. Some analysts see a clash of economic interests behind the Franco-American schism. Algeria's fundamentalists resent French cultural influence in their country and would undoubtedly reduce business ties. The French suspect that the U.S. hopes to be favored with valuable oil-and-gas exploration rights if it builds ties to future rulers.

FREE-MARKET FOCUS. An Islamic Algeria would probably be firmly free market, in reaction to 34 years of inept socialism. "Our position is for a free-market economy. We are in favor of diversity," says Anwar Haddam, the FIS representative in the U.S. Western oil companies that were kicked out of Algeria in the 1960s have moved back. Saharan oil fields still operate normally, guarded by troops.

But American pragmatism may be too late to have much impact. As time passes and their strength grows, fundamentalists have less reason to negotiate. They control most of the Algerian countryside at night. Government killings of some 5,000 opponents and many jailings haven't stopped them. Some segments of the army--Algeria's perpetual power broker--may be switching allegiance. It soon may be tough for any outside power to wield much influence.

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