After North Korea, what foreign crisis poses the greatest danger to the United States? It's surely not Bosnia, Haiti, or Rwanda. My candidate is Algeria. Algeria may lack the drama of nuclear weapons, besieged cities, or masses of starving refugees, and so we tend not to pay much attention to that country of 28 million Muslims on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. But what happens there soon may have vast implications for Europe and the Middle East, two regions of central importance to Americans.
Algeria matters so much because it is the battleground where a radical utopian ideology, that of fundamentalist Islam, has the best chance to seize power. This has led to virtual civil war. In their campaign to take power, fundamentalists have resorted to brutal intimidation. Hundreds of leading figures - intellectuals (including the country's leading playwright), politicians (including a president), and journalists (a special target) - have fallen victim to fundamentalist violence, as have thousands of ordinary Algerians, and especially emancipated women. In March, for example, a sixteen-year-old high school girl was killed on her way to school as punishment for appearing in public unveiled. A campaign of murder against foreigners (including twelve Croat construction workers massacred and seven Italian sailors massacred while sleeping) has forced nearly every Westerner to flee the country. As a result, the economy is failing, public services have virtually ground to a halt, and the regime is in increasing jeopardy.
Why does this matter to Americans? For two reasons. First, a fundamentalist Muslim victory will almost certainly lead to more violence, both domestic (to break internal opposition) and foreign (to dominate North Africa). This in turn will lead to a massive exodus of non-fundamentalists. Already, some 2,500 Algerians refugees are fleeing each month to France; and hundreds of thousands more would follow a fundamentalist takeover. When the new leaders export the revolution to the neighboring countries of Tunisia and Morocco, the refugees may number in the millions.
This is the last thing Europe needs. Although these emigrants would be anti-fundamentalist, the mood in Western Europe is such that their influx could well provoke a reactionary backlash. The immigrants could, unwittingly, bring far-right governments to power, governments whose polarizing policies could exacerbate existing social tensions and even, far-fetched as it sounds today, pose a threat to the Atlantic Alliance. European leaders already fret about this prospect. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany asserted earlier this year that "the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in North Africa is the major threat" to Europe today. Prime Minister Edouard Balladur of France has called a fundamentalist revolution in Algeria the number one threat facing his country.
An Islamic Republic of Algeria's second danger lies in the Middle East, where its success would immeasurably boost the morale and resources of fundamentalism. The impact would be felt far and wide, but it would have special importance for Egypt, probably giving Muslim radicals the boost they need to overturn the precarious regime of Husni Mubarak.
Fundamentalist rule in Cairo would have a profound impact on the Middle East. In the cheery assessment of 'Adil Husayn, a leading Egyptian fundamentalist: "If God grants [the fundamentalists] victory in Algeria, then we will have a belt of states rejecting capitulation, extending from the far Maghrib to Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran." Egypt would return to the rejectionist camp, determined again to eradicate the Jewish state, thereby abruptly ending the Arab-Israeli peace process. The country's arsenal of missiles and unconventional armaments would grow alarmingly. Egyptian ambitions to control oil exports from the Middle East would probably revive, with dicey implications for the world economy. As Egypt became a rogue state, it would almost surely develop the usual terrorist network, it would traffic in drugs, forge U.S. currency, and engage in a range of other illegal activities. And a fundamentalist takeover in Egypt would spur waves of emigration to the West, this time mostly to the United States.
In short, a fundamentalist Muslim seizure of power in Algiers may signal the beginning of a terrible decline for the Middle East, one comparable to what Africa is now going through, but - because of the region's oil, advanced weaponry, terrorists, and radical ideologies - one with far greater bite for the outside world. The second battle of Algiers is the main stage of the Middle East; in comparison, the peace process between the Arabs and Israel is a sideshow.
Foreign politicians are baffled by the crisis in Algeria and have done little to cope with it. As a Pentagon official put it recently, "The problem is that no one-not the French, the Tunisians, the Egyptians, or us-knows what to do." But Washington can take two important and constructive steps. First, it should declare clearly a principled opposition to the ideology of fundamentalist Islam and an intent to help Muslim regimes stave off fundamentalist challenges. Second, it should become more actively involved working with the Algerian authorities, helping them get over short-term financial problems, pressuring them to make improvements in human rights, and taking other practical steps to prevent the fundamentalists from reaching power.