Arab Leaders Stumped by Rise of Militant Islam in States Where Islamists Have a Political Outlet, Militancy Is at a Minimum

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THE rise of Islamic militancy is sparking new alliances in the Arab world, challenging Europe's and NATO's security, and threatening to alter the framework for a comprehensive Middle East peace.

The ascendancy of Islamism as a political ideology appears closely linked with the failure of secular leaders to reduce levels of poverty and unemployment and the growing perception of Islamists that Arab regimes are corrupt, authoritarian, and remote from their citizens.

As the Islamic revolution gains momentum in the Middle East and North Africa, moderate Arab states, Israel, and the West are facing two alternatives: Do you clamp down and try to obliterate Islamic fundamentalism through repression?

Or do you acknowledge the positive aspects of the Islamic revival, allow freedom of expression, and work with moderate elements of the Islamic movement to see if Islam and democracy are compatible?

In some Arab countries, the network of Islamic influence is offering its adherents a more meaningful community life by providing an efficient social-welfare structure, health clinics, and youth clubs.

"Tremendous tensions have arisen between Arab states over how to deal with the Islamic movement," says Mamoun Fandy, political science professor at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

In countries that allow Islamic movements a political outlet - such as Jordan - the threat of Islamic violence is minimal. In countries that use repression to deal with Islamic militancy - Algeria, Egypt, and the Israeli-occupied territories - violence from armed Islamic groups feeds a spiraling conflict.

"But the conflicts in Algeria and Egypt are different," says Fahmy Howeidy, a moderate Islamist and columnist for the Cairo daily Al-Ahram. "In Egypt, the radical Islamists are not fighting for power. It is more about revenge and resistance ... about families and tribes seeking revenge against the government."

The rapid deterioration of security in Algeria - where an estimated 30,000 people have died since Islamists were denied victory at the polls in 1992 - is contributing to an escalating conflict. Algerian pressure cooker

An Islamic revolution in Algeria could spark instability in Morocco and Tunisia and feed the Islamic rebellion in Egypt - already under pressure from Islamic insurgents and the Islamic stronghold of Sudan.

European countries - particularly France, Italy, and Spain - say a violent seizure of power by Islamists in Algeria could spark a mass exodus of Algerians to those countries and ignite Islamic militancy in Europe.

In recognition of this threat, NATO decided last month to open talks with five North African and Middle Eastern states to develop a strategy to counter the security threat posed by the Islamists.

NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes said at the security conference in Germany that since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Islamic militancy has emerged as the most serious threat to Western security.

But some Western diplomats and political analysts question whether NATO is the most appropriate vehicle to respond to the rise of Islam.

The European Union has proposed a security conference that will bring together North African, Middle Eastern, and European states at a security conference in Barcelona, Spain, in November to discuss how to promote stability in the region. …