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The New Islam Shuns Fanatics' Bullets for Ballots of Moderation : Middle East: The Islamic Salvation Front's unexpected electoral victory in Algeria will reverberate throughout the region. Repression can't stop it.

June 24, 1990|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, a national security correspondent in The Times' Washington bureau, is the author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam."

WASHINGTON — Ten days ago, in Algiers' modern seafront Ibn Khaldoun Hall, the Middle East passed a little-noticed milestone. Mohammed Salah Mohamedi, Algeria's soft-spoken, graying interior minister, revealed the stunning news. It took only three minutes. The country's first multiparty election since independence from France 28 years ago, he announced solemnly, had been swept by Islamic fundamentalists.

Then he walked out, leaving behind a thunderstruck crowd.

Not since the 1979 Iranian revolution has an Islamic party's victory been so decisive. And never before has Islam so overwhelmingly routed a long-dominant power by democratic means.

In a world topsy-turvy with new political formulations, Islam has now proved that it is among the most dynamic and energetic forces. And the reverberations of what happened in Algeria are not limited to the Middle East.

From India's Kashmir and the Soviet Union's Asian republics, through the Arab heartland and into North Africa, every victory for Allah fuels the fundamentalists' simplistic campaign slogan: "Islam is the solution."

Yet the Algerian campaign was qualitatively different from the vengeful Islamic convulsions witnessed in Iran's revolution and the takeover of Saudi Arabia's Grand Mosque in 1979, in the violent aftermath of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981, and in Lebanese extremism since 1982.

The decisive victories by the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria's municipal and regional elections "demonstrated that Islamicists can work within the system and abide by the rules of the game. That's a plus for liberalism," said John Entelis, an Algerian expert at Fordham University.

Indeed, what happened in Algeria, a socialist state, now confirms a trend that has been emerging during the past three years in disparate political systems.

In Egypt, a nation inching slowly toward democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood became the largest opposition force in the National Assembly in 1987. In Jordan, a monarchy, the first election in 22 years resulted, in 1989, in a new Parliament with more than one-third fundamentalists.

In this second phase of the Islamic resurgence, the Iranian model has been shunned and fanatics' bullets forsaken for ballots of moderation. Islam and democracy may not be incompatible.

Islam's victories, of course, have not happened in a vacuum. In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front won in part because of the failure of a revolutionary party that just three decades ago captured the imagination of struggling nations around the world by battling the powerful French Army for independence.

During the past decade, Algeria has been plagued by strikes and discontent over issues ranging from chronic housing shortages and land policies to education. During the last round of violence, in October, 1988, an estimated 400 died.

In this sense, Muslim demands for change are no different than in Eastern Europe. In a country with at least 25% unemployment, people want jobs. In Algiers, where the legendary Casbah is teeming with several times more people than it can hold, people want housing. With a $26-billion debt, Algeria has limited funds to address grievances. Algerians were voting as much against a bankrupt system as for Islam.

The discontent was visible the day the election results were announced. Long lines formed in front of striking gas stations. For three days, Algiers was without newspapers, also on strike. Garbage collectors joined the boycott; piles of garbage accumulated on streets throughout the Mediterranean capital.

Nor, of course, does Islam have all the solutions. Despite its motto, the Islamic Salvation Front's campaign lacked specific cures for Algeria's problems. But Islamic groups are providing alternatives.

In response to the garbage strike, bearded men dressed in coarse-cotton galibeyah robes, the traditional Algerian dress, collected the slimy piles of refuse with their bare hands. The front had mobilized its followers.

In Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood also boasted "Islam is the solution," Islamic societies have established hundreds of clinics and schools with first-rate social services at no or marginal cost--in stark contrast to costly private facilities and inefficient government institutions.

The risky gambles by the leaders of Algeria, Egypt and Jordan in opening the political dikes may offer a lesson in how to deal with Islam: Include fundamentalists rather than confront them. Co-opt the Islamic tide by forcing them to share the burden of solving staggering problems.

Indeed, one of the reasons Islam has become so potent is due to the absence of democratic outlets--in Algeria for 28 years, in Jordan for 22 and in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned since 1954, for 33 years.

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