Leading Article: Hanging is not a long-term solution

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The Independent Online
THE governments of Egypt and Algeria are engaged in a deadly conflict with Islamic militant groups, yet the situation in the two countries is very different. By Middle Eastern standards, Egypt is a relatively liberal country with a long history of strong central government. The ruthlessness of the conflict there is attested by yesterday's murder of three policemen and the hanging of six militants. In the past 21 months, 228 people have been killed and 630 wounded in related violence. But the militants are concentrated in the south, and seem unlikely to achieve their aim of overthrowing the government.

Algeria, by contrast, has been hardened by the long struggle against French colonial rule, which ended in 1962. Until recently it was governed by dour but corrupt Socialists. The present conflict was triggered by the decision in January 1992 of the military-backed authorities to abort an election and to ban the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which had been poised to win.

Since then at least 2,000 people have been killed in related violence, including fundamentalist militants, security personnel and civilians opposed to the creation of an Islamic state. Among recent victims have been 23 foreigners. All foreigners were warned by the fundamentalist extremists to leave the country by 1 December. The threat to public order is much greater than in Egypt, and since October the authorities seem to have decided that repression should be accompanied by dialogue with the FIS.

The West tends to assume that militant Islam is a recent and relatively monolithic phenomenon. In reality, it goes back several centuries and takes varying forms. It is directed not against Western culture as such, but its influence on the leaders and governments of Muslim countries, as well as other forms of perceived decadence.

Latterly it has become increasingly violent, thanks partly to the Iranian revolution of 1979 and partly, perhaps, to a communications revolution that has made the West's influence ever harder to resist, and the gap in living standards more obvious.

Unfortunately, the repressive measures used to combat the militants in a country such as Egypt are as vicious as the methods of the extremists. Attempts to overthrow governments are bound to be actively suppressed. Yet - as the Algerian government seems to have realised - executions unaccompanied by more positive steps rarely provide a long-term solution.