*New York Times:ISLAMIST bombs punched more holes in North Africa’s secular social veneer last week, this time in Algeria, where two blasts killed 33 people and wounded hundreds more. It was a depressing blow for a country still healing from the wounds of a brutal Islamist-led civil war.
That atrocity-spattered conflict, which cost Algeria as many as 200,000 lives, according to frequently cited estimates, was triggered in 1992 when the country’s military stopped elections that an Islamist party was poised to win. Outraged Islamists and their young, impoverished, uneducated supporters took up arms. Some are still fighting, as Wednesday’s bombings made painfully clear.
But something else lingers from the war: a debate over whether the military rescued Algeria from the establishment of an Iranian-like theocracy or whether the repression only hardened an impulse that would have dissipated in democracy’s tempering bath.
The debate can be heard all across North Africa, where secular governments of varying authoritarian degrees face a surge in conservative religiosity that supports an extreme form of political Islam.
Every country on the continent’s northern rim, from Egypt to Morocco, has outlawed extreme Islamist parties that would be likely to win large parliamentary blocs — if not majorities — were they allowed to participate in free and fair national elections. (Libya bans political parties altogether.)
Each of those countries (again with the exception of Libya, where the small society is tightly controlled) has suffered terrorist attacks from local groups that have emerged from the repressed extremists.
What to do?
Clearly, the rise of conservative Islam won’t be turned aside by simply banning the veil, as Tunisia tried unsuccessfully to do.
Allowing carefully monitored, government-friendly Islamist parties into the political system hasn’t solved the problem either: neither the Movement for the Society of Peace and the Islamic Renaissance Movement in Algeria, nor the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, have successfully diffused the power of the underground movements.
The governments counsel patience, arguing that fuller democracy will come as their economies improve and their societies mature. Meanwhile, as the threat has progressed, the leaders of Algeria and Tunisia have used constitutional amendments to tighten their grip. Morocco has swept thousands of Islamists into its jails.
“We opened up too early and too wide,” a wartime prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, said in 2004. He was speaking of the period that led to the aborted 1992 elections.
He and others in North Africa’s elite circles of power argue that, given the conservative religiosity sweeping the Muslim world, it is simply too dangerous to allow essentially non-democratic movements to participate in fully democratic elections because they can’t be trusted to respect democratic principles if they come to power.
The leaders of those movements don’t instill much confidence: last summer, Ali Benhadjar, a former Islamist leader with a long russet beard who went to war in 1992 after being denied a seat in Parliament, explained that an Islamist-led government would not suspend the democratic process, but that all decisions would rely on Islamic law. He cited Iran as a democratic model.
Meanwhile, the circumscribed democracy that exists throughout the region doesn’t only squeeze out Islamists; it prevents more liberal elements of civil society from participating in politics as well. That leaves most people without a political voice, caught between a distant, elitist and often corrupt government and a militant opposition rooted in fundamentalist Islam. Despite the periodic violence, the Islamist movement appears to be gaining ground.
“In the absence of debate, people turn to the simplest ideas,” Khadija Cherif, the head of the Tunisian Association for Women’s Rights, said in an interview in Tunis in January after government forces clashed with an Islamist terrorist cell, killing more than two dozen people.
She argued that the repression of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had left no political space for progressive moderates like herself who might otherwise help slow the drift among Tunisian youth toward fundamentalist political Islam.
These countries can’t keep the volatile segment of their populations shut out of the political process forever. In Algeria, as in many Arab countries, nearly three-quarters of the population is younger than 30 and half of those under the age of 25 are unemployed.
The Islamist movement easily influences those people. The Internet and Arabic satellite TV stations from the Middle East have filled the void left by bland state-run media outlets at home, helping spread fundamentalism and a militant political message.
Economic development alone isn’t the answer, however. Many of the most active militants come from well-to-do families. Tunisia, for example, has a big, home-owning, mortgage-holding middle class but hasn’t escaped radicalism. In contrast to the Western-friendly face presented at North Africa’s tourist hotels, Al Qaeda finds many admirers in its capital’s narrow streets.
What would happen if these governments let down their guard?
John Entelis, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York, argues that the demands of working within a pluralistic system — or the responsibilities of governing if an Islamist party came to power — would force those parties to change.
Look at Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, he says, which was once banned but now governs responsibly — in a NATO-member country. Having an Islamist party in power has not spared Turkey from terrorist attacks, but neither has it turned the country into a theocratic state. It has, however, satisfied a democratic impulse and given Turkey the most popular government it has had in the three-quarters of a century since Ataturk secularized the state.
“Give these guys a chance,” Mr. Entelis says of Algeria’s outlawed Islamic Salvation Front, whose imminent victory in the 1992 elections preceded the civil war. “If there hadn’t been a coup, 200,000 people would still be alive and we would have found out once and for all if these guys are true to their word.”
Instead, the military response and subsequent repression undermined the moderates and emboldened the militants in the movement, he says. The result is the persistent Islamist terrorism that is facing Algeria today and that is morphing into a global threat, with logistic support from Europe to the north and recruitment extending southward into the African Sahel.
Other experts — not to mention the governments in power — disagree. William Zartman, a North Africa expert at Johns Hopkins University specializing in conflict resolution, says Algeria and Morocco are doing the right thing by excluding extremists yet allowing moderate Islamic parties to operate under tight government control.
“We don’t know that F.I.S.’s moderate wing would have been able to hold out against the radical wing, which had turned violent even before the 1992 elections,” Mr. Zartman says, referring to the French acronym for the Islamic Salvation Front. He cited the moderate government of Alexander Kerensky in Russia after the fall of Czar Nicholas II, which was soon swept aside by the radicals who imposed Communist rule.
“Movements like this have a way of riding in on soft coattails and then cutting them off,” he said.