Egypt: The Algeria Scenario

The nightmare scenario following Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government is a descent into a civil war bloodbath like the one that inundated Algeria for a decade after that country’s 1992 military coup. There are both parallels and contrasts to what happened in Algeria, writes Yassine Temlali, but the decisive turning points may be yet to come.

There is frequent talk of “a repeat of the Algeria scenario” in Egypt now. The revolutionary process which began in January, 2011 is going through a critical moment; the army has once again taken center stage, by hijacking the formidable anti-Morsi mobilization that the Tamarod movement had launched.

We need not enumerate all the ways that the events here have differed from the Algerian military’s annulment of the December 1991 legislative elections that the Islamic Salvation Front[FIS] had won. We will focus on two. First, Mohamed Morsi’s departure from the presidency was a genuinely popular demand, something which cannot be said of the military’s halt of the electoral process in Algeria. There, much of the electorate felt that the only hope of ending the FLN [ruling party]system lay in voting for radical fundamentalists. The second difference is that in Egypt, the demand for Morsi’s departure did not reflect some abstract fear of the Islamists taking power (as in Algeria); rather it was a reaction to the failure of the Muslim Brothers to improve the socioeconomic situation, their failure to restore a sense of security. Likewise the Brothers’ attempts to Islamize the state, of which the caricatural example was the nomination of a former leader of a fundamentalist group that had murdered dozens of foreign tourists in Luxor in 1997… to be the governor of Luxor.

Do these divergences from the Algerian case mean that situation in Egypt will not, as it were, evolve ‘Algeria-style’? In other words will the more radical Islamist political groups be tempted to violence? This course is not, unfortunately, out of the realm of possibility. Not all of these groups have abandoned their jihadi doctrines, and some still believe in armed struggle as the final recourse against the taghut [idolatrous tyrant], a figure now incarnated not only in the person of General Abdelfattah El Sissi, but also, to the distress of these groups, in millions of Egyptians from all social stations. Following the old maxim that ‘the best defense is a good offense,’ these groups may well react in advance to the expected repression against their own groups following Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow and the arrest of many Muslim Brotherhood leaders. If, god forbid, this scenario played out, the radical groups might find their ranks swelled by those members of the Muslim Brothers more susceptible to the jihadi discourse.

Here we should recall certain events from the 1990s in Algeria. The first Islamist military action after the dismantling of Moustafa Bouyali’s 1982-1987 maquis, came at the end of November, 1991; that is, a full month before the suspension of the elections that the Islamist FIS would win. This was an attack on a military garrison at Guemar, in the southeast, by the Armed Islamic Movement [MIA]-a group which had no connection to the FIS, and which rejected the idea of attaining an Islamic state via the ballot box.

Algerian jihadism in the 1990s thus continued independently [of an ascendant mainstream Islamism], and this appears to be the case in Egypt as well (Morsi’s election did not put an end to [jihadi]attacks in the Sinai peninsula). Does this mean that the halting of the legislative elections of 1991 played only a minor role in the explosion of violence and counter-violence that Algeria experienced starting in 1992? The military high command’s decision to halt the elections in the guise of saving the republic-remade the jihadis, in the eyes of FIS activists, as clear, as clear-eyed thinkers who had not fallen victim to the siren song of legality. It thus opened the way for the radical Islamists, already active in the MIA and other groups (including an offshoot of the FIS led by Said Makhloufi), bringing them hundreds of unexpected recruits, disillusioned by their stolen electoral victory, and above all fleeing state repression. The stupidity had gone as far as the roundup of thousands of FIS activists for ‘preventive detention’ in the open-air camps of the Sahara, and the dispatch of death squads to murder hundreds more. A portion of the inmates of the camps would join the guerillas after being released, joined by others who had escaped summary execution.

This catastrophic management of the period after January, 1992, is the major reason for the tragedy of the 1990s, not merely the act of annulling the legislative elections (polls which were not in any case either free or democratic, given the extreme tension and polarization between the [ruling]FLN and the FIS). With the benefit of 21 years hindsight, we can see that the disaster could have been avoided if army leaders had not been so blind to the consequences of their decisions. Might Algeria have avoided the loss of tens of thousands of its children, if so many Islamist activists had not been arrested and executed without trial? If the banning of the FIS had ended the democratic transition Algeria had begun in the intifada of October, 1988?

It is this aspect of the ‘Algeria Scenario’ that should be considered by those in Egypt who are calling for the ‘military eradication of Islamism,’ a fantasy that is far from Algerian alone. The errors of that red decade should not be repeated in this country, especially since political Islam is not only on the wane, but has never seen such a sudden decline in popularity. If it does not want to see this strong anti-Islamist impetus fail pathetically in an orgy of score-settling between old regime remnants (fouloul), the movement opposing the Muslim Brothers must moderate the zeal of the ‘eradicators’ among its ranks: those who dream of sending the Islamists back to prison instead of defeating them in a democratic competition. Such a competition’s rules forbid the snuffing out of political liberties as well as turning religion to the service of political power.

Criminal prosecutions of the main leaders of the Muslim Brothers have already begun. They were ordered by a chief prosecutor nominated by Hosni Mubarak, fleetingly dismissed by Mohammed Morsi, and reinstated to his post the day before the latter’s overthrow. Even if formally justified (calls for violence, incitement to religious hatred etc) , the prosecutions have the air of a vendetta by a justice system that never got around to convicting those responsible for the repression of early 2011, and that continues to acquit the important figures of the Mubarak regime.

If the repression expands to the base of the Islamist brotherhood, it might, as in 1992 Algeria, push many of its activists into the arms of the jihadis. The geography of Egypt (lacking mountains that provide easily ‘liberated zones’) certainly does not favor the development of an Algerian-style insurgency. But a return to the good old days, under the gaze of the generals, by the resurrected fouloul of the old regime, with the same lack of a political and economic program for the people, might well provoke one anyway, of the low intensity sort. The perfect pretext to put off forever the democratization that was the central demand of the Jan. 2011 intifada.

Yassine Temlali