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Algeria now out of control

I was spending a little relaxation time playing Microsoft Flight Simulator, gently careening through New York City's twin towers upside down at 500 knots, when I noticed that one of the thunderstorm clouds looming above looked remarkably like Algeria, a nation which, like my Learjet, is spinning into an uncertain future.

Since gaining its independence from France in the 1950s, Algeria has had its share of problems. Jockeying between military coups, Algeria has had the distinction of being not only poor but poorly led. With a history of backing losers, like the Arabs in the 1967 war with Israel and the Soviet Union during the cold war, Algeria still harbors supporters of such the heros as Saddam Hussein and a grab bag of Middle East terrorists.

In 1989, though, things started looking up. Voters approved a constitution for the country's first democratically-elected parliament, and since that time, Algeria has been steadily solidifying itself as a credible state.

That is, until now.

The Islamic Salvation Front, a militant organization devoted to establishing Islamic law as the basis for governing secular society, is gaining support in Algeria. On Sunday, the prime minister cancelled the parliamentary elections which would have put the fundamentalists in control of the country. The Algerian government, currently run by an interim council dominated by the army, may have made the wrong move for all the right reasons.

Islamic culture is as noble as any other, but many tenets of its holy law, concerning the restrictions on the rights of women, freedom of speech and religion and the use of amputation and flogging as criminal punishments, run counter to the values of equality and liberty on which the Algerian democracy is based, and which the Islamic Front claims to support.

Islamic law, which usually places national science and education under the control of clerics, has proven itself to be antithetical to progress, and Islam's bizarre form of totalitarian socialism tends to flop miserably unless the nation in which it emerges is already wealthy. Algeria isn't.

Algerians don't like to be poor. Many like Western values and cultures, and a lot more, like the members of the armed forces, are not eager to submit themselves to Marxist paternal rule by backward-thinking holy rollers. Unfortunately, the fundamentalists, who have been amassing support for a platform of Muslim heritage, order, economic growth and, in part, hatred for the United States and Israel for fighting Saddam, have fooled enough people to become a threat to the survival of the democracy.

But by halting elections and rolling tanks, though, Algeria's democratic leadership has killed democracy in order to save it. The dominance of the army in the move, as well, provides a precedent for future meddling of the military in the civilian governing process. Algeria's leaders have the right idea -- stop militant fundamentalism -- but democracies have other ways of guaranteeing liberties than destroying their multi-party institutions.

The Algerian constitution needs a bill of rights, a constitutional provision guaranteeing individual liberties which would require a three-fourths majority to overrule. If Algeria has such a provision already, the present government should grant Algeria's judicial authorities the power to enforce these amendments. Either way, though, the parliamentary elections should take place.

If such amendments to the constitution pass, democratic life in Algeria can survive a fundamentalist victory. The constitutional rights provisions should water down any Islamic law programs that come into effect, and if the militant leadership attempts to ignore these liberties without securing the necessary constitutional amendments, the democrats in the armed forces can roll the tanks, this time at least under some semblance of legal authority.


Matthew H. Hersch, a sophomore in the Department of Physics, is an opinion editor of The Tech.