Algeria's initial attempt at multiparty elections in December 1991 ended in disaster. The problem, Algerian officials say, was that the country picked the wrong moment to open the doors to pluralism and then opened them too wide. Algeria had slogged away for decades under a military-backed, single-party socialism that left the country's imams as the only credible opposition. By the late 1980's, the economy was in shambles - brought down by the oil-price collapse of 1986 - and the public was still angry about an incident in 1988 in which the military opened fire on antigovernment rioters and killed hundreds. Trying to address the discontent, the government began steps to liberalize in 1989 and held parliamentary elections in 1991.Now, as far as I can tell, there are two broad strategies for making a predominantly Islamic state amenable to democracy (as we know it). First, a benevolent dictator can ban all Islamic parties for a period of time, allowing other, secular parties to organize themselves into credible alternatives. This is exactly what the Algerian military did, stepping in after the 1991 elections and prohibiting all political parties based on religious belief. Of course, that process has taken over 13 years, and even today, Islamic parties need to be strong-armed, and the military elite still dominates politics.
"At that moment, we opened the doors to pluralism and the volcano blew," Ahmed Ouyahia, the country's prime minister, said of the parliamentary elections.
In a country that had not had any opposition political parties, fundamentalist Islamists had the popularity and organization to capitalize on the moment. They swept the first round of parliamentary elections and were almost certain to emerge from the second with the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed for the constitutional reforms that would have turned Algeria into an Islamic state. Among their stated goals: basing the country's justice system on the strict dictates of the Shariah, or Islamic law.