Fundamentalism is spreading westward; now it has invaded the Maghreb. The results of Algeria’s June 12 local elections, in which the Islamic Salvation Front (F.J.S.) won more than half of the country’s town halls, including Algiers, Oran and all the other big cities, were stunning–but not really surprising. The National Liberation Front (F.L.N.), which has run the country for the twenty-eight years since independence, is falling apart like the regimes of Eastern Europe. Once it stood for resistance to French colonialism. Now, for the bulk of the population, it stands for mismanagement, injustice and corruption. After the bloody riots of October 1988, in which several hundred young people were killed, President Chadli Benjedid opted for both political and economic liberalization. But in a country whose ever-present economic crisis is aggravated today by dwindling oil revenues, and where nearly a quarter of the labor force is jobless, these liberal remedies have meant still more striking inequalities in living standards and an even greater degree of popular discontent.
The F.I.S., set up only sixteen months ago, has taken advantage of this mood. True, it has no economic solutions to offer beyond liberalism and Islamic law. Its education and family policies are enough to send shivers down the spine of Algeria’s many emancipated women. But the Islamic Front has managed to emerge as the main moral alternative to the discredited F.L.N., and on June 12 it was helped by an election boycott by the two main opposition parties that kept 35 percent of voters away from the polls. The leader of the F.I.S., Abassi al-Madani, a white-robed, bearded former Algiers University professor, now wants to turn his municipal victory into a parliamentary and then a presidential triumph. Quite understandably, he is in a hurry.
But the other side, for opposite reasons, is not. Will President Benjedid finally yield to the pressure for early elections? Will the F.L.N. split? Will the army take sides, or will it play its own game? Above all, will the lay and democratic forces, which are not negligible in Algeria, find time to mobilize and provide an alternative platform that is both radical and realistic, one that offers hope and dignity to the rising generation? The answers to those questions are crucial, for the success or failure of the Islamic Front in Algeria will have an impact on Tunisia and Morocco, the other countries of the Maghreb, as well as on the immigrant population in France. Much is at stake, although it should be added–in fairness to the Algerians–that the Muslim world is not the only place in today’s political arena in which the secular left appears unable to arrest the forward march of irrational forces.