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
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
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
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
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. …