Last week, Algeria was on the way to completing a historic shift to multiparty democracy. Now, it is without a president or parliament, ruled by a handful of unelected men.
That's because on Dec. 26, in historic elections, the Islamic Salvation Front fell just short of a majority in the 430-seat assembly. The unexpected prospect of Islamic fundamentalists taking power - even democratically - was frightening to many.When it became evident that the Front would probably win the necessary seats for a majority in a runoff election scheduled later this week, the State Security Council canceled the voting.
Curiously, there has been little criticism from Western capitals where democracy's virtues are so often extolled. That's because Islamic fundamentalists are not exactly popular in the eyes of most Western governments.
Algerian independence from France came in 1962 after a bloody revolution that began in 1954. With independence came a Soviet-style regime that was harshly critical of the United States. Things were highly unstable until 1988 when severe rioting resulted in a referendum that adopted a new democratic constitution that prepared the way for the recent elections.
To a large extent, the fears of a fundamentalist takeover in Algeria are vague. The Salvation Front has not spelled out the extent to which it might curtail women's rights or enforce strict Islamic law. But the idea of an Islamic state evokes images in the West of a second Iran and the possibility of such regimes rising elsewhere in Africa.
The truth is that whether the West likes it or not, Algeria has made a democratic choice. Maybe the newly elected regime will fail and maybe it will succeed. But we cannot afford to applaud democratic elections if we like the results and cancel them out if we don't.
The Islamic party must be tested by giving them license to try to resolve the myriad problems that afflict Algeria. Some observers believe electoral politics and its interesting challenges will profoundly moderate the absolutist tendencies latent in Islamic fundamentalism.
Any group can be elected to political positions, but afterward they must prove they're politically savvy enough to stay in power. That is where the fundamentalists may fall short. Given a little time, Islamic politics may turn out to be less frightening than Western democracies fear.