The bearded FIS - French acronym for the Islamic Salvation Front - demonstrators wound their way up the hills of Algiers in perfect order, even arranging their own ambulances in case of mishaps (there were none). The silence was eloquent, and it showed better than any banner or slogan that the new party could impose discipline. But could it get out the vote?
(image, Jurist, University of Pittsburgh)
It was spring 1990, and I had just arrived in Algeria to take up my new job at the American Embassy as head of the political section. I had actually left a tropical paradise several months early to get to Algiers in time to cover the first contested elections since Algerian independence in 1962. I knew it would be interesting, but I was unaware that I'd be a witness to a sea change in this North African country's history.
Twenty years later, we can look at Algeria's municipal and regional assembly elections of June 12, 1990 as a dangerous experiment in democracy, one that degenerated into a quasi-civil war after the Army canceled parliamentary elections that the FIS was slated to win in January 1992. But that conventional wisdom is based on a certain determinism. Algeria need not have descended into more than a decade of bloodletting.
In spring 1990, then Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid, two weeks before the elections, raised hopes when he said that "the time of top-down governance is over. Ruling party and opposition must be elected, not co-opted or parachuted in by the machine." Few believed that he was sincere. After all, street signs in Algiers pointed to the "Headquarters of The Party," as in the single party, the FLN that had led the country to independence from France.
That blasé attitude was certainly present in a little corner restaurant where I'd stopped for lunch on June 12, taking a break from my urban walkabout to observe polling sites. The man at the table near mine, a civil servant, wasn't even voting. "Why bother?" he scoffed, "we know what the results will be." That would have been true before June 1990, but that day, it was to be different. The party that got out the vote would win.
And that's what the FIS did. In polling place after polling place, I came across the ubiquitous FIS election observers. All the parties were authorized to place their watchdogs at the election sites; only the FIS did it with any regularity. Truth be told, some of the small "democratic" parties probably didn't have sufficient members to allow other than a symbolic presence. But even the ruling FLN was absent. Like my lunchtime friend, they said "why bother?"
The rest is history. The FIS' 4.5 million votes were double that of the FLN, and left all other parties in the dust. FIS members took up positions as mayors of Algiers, Oran, and all the major cities. It maintained its hold on municipal and regional assemblies until its dissolution after the January 1992 coup.
Years later, I listened to an Algerian general at an international conference refer to "democratic terrorism" to explain the FIS electoral victories of June 1990 and December 1991, as if voting were somehow illegitimate if you disagreed with the results. We know where that attitude led.
The world still hasn't come to grips with the quandary of what to do when the "wrong" side wins, especially when it's an Islamist party. In Gaza, the Hamas winners of the January 2006 elections are still waiting to do their victory lap...