Mideast and Democracy Some in the West and in the Region Have Been Too Quick to Use Algeria's Experience as an Excuse for Putting the Brakes on Democratization

Article excerpt

THE recent victory by Islamic forces in Algeria's elections has brought to the fore a basic dilemma faced by nearly all Arab states and the Western world.

This dilemma derives from the crumbling of the Soviet empire, which the West deservedly celebrates as the victory of democracy over dictatorship. With such profound change taking place, the Middle East, like other regions, is experiencing strong popular desires for participatory forms of government.

Yet as Algeria's case illustrates, political liberalization in most Middle Eastern countries is likely to help Islamic groups gain increased influence and in some cases control of the state apparatus. It is feared that, once in power, these groups will deprive others of their rights.

For the West, the risk goes beyond the possibility of seeing its democratic ideals distorted by Islamic groups.

Here is the real dilemma: Repressive and undemocratic as they are, most of today's Middle Eastern governments either favor the West or are realistic enough to deal constructively with it. Thus they are open to compromise on such key issues as the Arab-Israeli conflict. By contrast, governments dominated or heavily influenced by Islamic forces are likely to be anti-West and difficult to deal with.

These concerns should not be overlooked. But both Middle Eastern and Western governments risk overreacting to events in Algeria. They may be tempted to try halting democratization in the Middle East.

Indeed, the first reaction, both in Algeria and among neighboring Maghreb governments, has been to deny the Algerian Islamists their victory and to prevent similar groups from testing their electoral strength elsewhere. Secular groups in Algeria succeeded in convincing the Army to intervene.

In short, the lesson drawn from the Algerian experience thus far is that the Middle East is not ripe for democracy - that, therefore, maintaining the status quo will better serve all concerned.

Yet such reasoning, if carried through as in Algeria, could in the long run be dangerous both for the stability of Middle Eastern countries and for Western interests. To begin with, ignoring the existence of an Islamic trend will not eliminate it, but simply push it underground where it will be expressed in sabotage and violence. Such treatment will endow these movements with a halo of martyrdom, thus increasing rather than diminishing their popular appeal.

Almost certainly, the appeal of the Islamists will quickly fade once they participate in government - especially if they are in the majority. No single ideology or group, including Islam and the Islamists, can solve the gigantic social and economic problems faced by nearly all Middle Eastern states. Popular disaffection with a rigid Islamic socioeconomic model will mount, as Iran's experience demonstrates. …