Leading Article: Dangerous tremors across the Med

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The Independent Online
DISPATCHES from Algeria, not least from our correspondent Robert Fisk, have painted a horrifying picture of a country on the edge of civil war or revolution. The immediate trigger of the conflict was the cancellation by the army in January 1992 of the second round of Algeria's first relatively free multi-party elections.

Not surprisingly, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which had gained a majority in the first round and was poised to win the second, protested. The army took draconian counter-action and declared a state of emergency. From then on the violence has grown ever more horrible, with Islamist groups murdering policemen, Westernised professionals and intellectuals - and foreigners; and the authorities torturing or killing anyone suspected of association with the FIS.

It seems unlikely that the dialogue with the government's opponents now being proposed by the president, General Liamine Zeroual, will bring results acceptable to the FIS. So the struggle will continue, and possibly spread to Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.

The spectacle of Islam on the warpath arouses both atavistic and rational fears in Western breasts. Although historically the Europeans have few rivals when it comes to torture, war and mutual extermination, their religious fundamentalists abandoned arms several centuries ago (except, some would say, in Ulster). It is nationalism and ethnicity that prompt slaughter in Europe today, rather than religion. A particular horror is felt in the Christian West for violence perpetrated - for example, through sharia law - in the name of any religion claiming to represent spiritual values.

In terms both of realpolitik and morality, there are grounds for believing that Islamic fundamentalist dominance in North Africa would be dangerous for Western Europe. It would precipitate a wave of middle-class emigration that would exacerbate Algeria's economic problems and so increase the exodus resulting from poverty and population pressure. France, Spain and Italy would bear the brunt of the burden.

It would also be likely to radicalise important parts of Muslim minorities already on this continent: Iran's use of North Africans for most of its 1986 bombing campaign in Paris has not been forgotten. Finally, it would lay Europeans open to the charge of abandoning those moderates in the Arab world who share Western values of tolerance and democracy.

With a similar if much less intense and regionalised struggle being waged in Egypt, it is high time that greater attention was paid to these painful questions.