With the Islamic Salvation Front (F.I.S.) poised for electoral victory and eager to establish its oppressive order, there was no good solution in Algeria. But the government may well have chosen the worst one–a military coup with the thinnest of disguises. The old parliamentary assembly was disbanded and President Chadli Benjedid, who favored compromising with the F.I.S., was forced to resign. Parliamentary and presidential elections were put off until the beginning of 1994. Until then presidential powers will be exercised by a five-man High State Council, set up after three days of confusion. It is headed by 74-year-old Mohammad Boudiafe, one of the leaders of the 1962 revolution, but its strongman is 54-year-old Gen. Khalid Nizar, the Minister of Defense. The government of Sid Ahmed Ghozali will remain in power but the army will rule. The incensed Islamicists, deprived of their prize, called on the people to rise against “the clique of foreign agents that has usurped power,” but they have not issued any specific orders. The army is waiting for a pretext to declare a state of siege and it has begun a crackdown, arresting an F.I.S. leader and banning political activities in mosques.

The government feared that in a second ballot, for 199 undecided seats, the better-organized F.I.S. would win enough to gain the two-thirds majority required for constitutional change and would thus be able to proclaim an Islamic Republic [see “Islamic Clout,” January 27]. Many Algerians favor doing anything to avoid that fate. They argue that the F.I.S., with less than percent of registered voters, cannot claim a mandate to destroy secular institutions, send all women back to the kitchen and the country into the Dark Ages. To suggestions that force should be used only if the F.I.S. breaks the law, they reply that once the Islamicists get their hands on the instruments of state power, the future can only be Iranian.

There are counter-arguments, of course: You cannot interrupt the democratic process whenever you dislike the verdict of the people; you cannot claim that the Islamicists are unable to solve the real problems of society if you prevent them from governing. The present action adds the halo of martyrdom to their unearned reputation as potential saviors. The key question is, What policy is more likely to deprive the F.I.S. of its popular support? A mass demonstration, staged in Algiers on January 1 under the sponsorship of the Front for Socialist Forces, showed both the way and its difficulties. It was good to see 300,000 people, including so many women, taking to the streets. But the poor districts of Algiers, like Bab el Oued, were underrepresented. The “bearded ones,” as the F.I.S. militants are called, may send shivers down your spine, but the grievances of their supporters are genuine.

The National Liberation Front led the Algerian people in their struggle against French colonialism, then deprived them of their voice by monopolizing power for thirty years. The result was political sclerosis, nepotism and corruption. The social injustices had been aggravated in recent years by the regime’s wholesale conversion to “free enterprise.” In a country whose population has tripled since independence, the number of the downtrodden, outcasts and outsiders has grown, and they have proved a natural prey for the F.I.S.

It is idle to expect the high council, backed by the army and eyeing the International Monetary Fund, to tackle seriously the problems of the exploited. The best that can be hoped for is that mutual fears of civil war will dictate moderation to both the army and the Islamicists, giving time for dispersed movements to merge into a progressive force, which will appear on the stage as a third and crucial actor in this drama. If not, Algeria may well get the worst of both worlds: army dictatorship, then the tyranny of fundamentalism.