Globe and Mail
February 4, 1993
One year ago, Algeria’s first experience with pluralistic democracy ended in failure.
On January 11, 1992, civilian and military leaders forced President Chadli Benjedid to resign and voided the parliamentary elections after early results showed the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) headed for an overwhelming victory.
A former army official said that the recent election represented "chaos, not a free election." Time, he said, was needed to stabilize the country and prepare Algerian society for true democratic practices.
Algeria has been described as the most pressing Western concern in the region. If it should fall to the FIS, it is feared that an emboldened Islamic fundamentalism could undermine other moderate Arab states like Tunisia and Egypt.
Given the violent, anti-democratic aims of the FIS, one would have expected the Western democracies to have agreed with the army’s assessment and offered the interim government every assistance. However, as the New York Times reported: “Most Western governments, including the United States, are said to hope that by refusing to lend significant backing to the tottering Algerian junta, they can moderate the severity of the Islamic government that may follow.”
Western policy toward Algeria is turning out to be a self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy. Some Western diplomats even doubt the ruling High Security Council will last another year. Today, Algeria’s annual inflation rate stands at 40 per cent and unemployment at 20 percent. Western diplomats estimate that more than 400 police and army officials were killed in 1992.
One could debate whether the army voided the elections out of a sense of altruism for the good of the country or simply out of self-interest. The ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), after all, had been the only party to rule Algeria since independence and the army had supported it for all of its 29 years. However, when the nature of Algerian democracy is taken into account, the army’s actions can be seen as constitutional and necessary.
Among the Fundamental Principles stated in the Algerian Constitution are: the presumption of innocence in judicial matters; freedom from discrimination based on sex, race, or belief; and freedom of conscience and expression. The FIS has openly condemned these and other basic principles.
The official campaign slogan of the FIS was: “No Constitution and no laws. The only rule is the Koran and the law of God.” Throughout the election, the FIS denounced democracy as an alien Western phenomenon, and sought to impose an Iran-style Islamic revolution by insurrection, strikes, and civil disobedience. According to the standards of Algeria’s republican democracy, the aims of the FIS are clearly unconstitutional.
Doubtless, the West would have preferred to see the army put down an armed fundamentalist coup d’état. At least, it could then praise the army for defending Algeria’s democracy against its enemies. However, since the FIS staged an insurrection by ballot, suddenly the enemy becomes democratic and the army is the undemocratic enemy. All that matters for the West is that the democratic "process" in Algeria was interrupted, and therefore Algeria was upbraided. No deep appreciation of Algeria’s internal politics was necessary.
In this matter, Algeria is not an isolated case. The U.S. and other nations condemned Peru’s president Alberto Fujimori after he suspended the constitution and disbanded congress to fight drug traffickers and the Shining Path guerillas. Despite overwhelming popular support among Peruvians for Fujimori’s show of strength, the U.S. called Fujimori’s actions “unjustified,” and suspended all new assistance to Peru until constitutional democracy was restored.
By contrast, the U.S. enthused over Kenya’s first multi?party elections, even though President Daniel arap Moi said he would never again acquiesce to another election. Amid widespread reports of abductions, bribery, intimidation, and harassment, the U.S. declared the elections to be “generally representative of the Kenyan people.”
The lesson to be learned here is that the only democracy is liberal democracy, even where it has no entrenched tradition: pull a lever, mark a ballot, and voilà—instant popular wisdom. Elections have become secular rituals fulfilled for their own sake and are more important than a country’s statement of principles. The West has collapsed Rousseau’s distinction between the general will of country and the will of all its citizens. Democratic practice is now more important than principle.
Without doubt, the West’s worst fears of a more hostile, unstable Algeria are coming to pass. As the West moralizes to Algeria from its liberal soapbox, it is blind to its own complicity.