Egypt 2013 is not Algeria 1991 (whew!), but that’s bad news for Egyptian democracy


Among the groups that wield real power in Egypt, democracy turns out to be not so incredibly popular.Algeria_Flag_Iconegypt_flag_new

No matter what U.S. secretary of state John Kerry says and no matter what Egypt’s army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi (pictured above) believes, the military effort to push Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, from office was hardly a lesson in preserving democracy.  Militaries in healthy democracies, Middle Eastern or otherwise, do not respond to public protests by ousting elected governments.

But Morsi, by pushing through a new constitution without ample debate last December and attempting to assume near-dictatorial powers in order to do so, and more recently trying to stack the ranks of Egypt’s regional governments with rank-and-file Muslim Brotherhood members, showed that he also lacked enthusiasm for civic participation.

What’s happening in Egypt today is starting to resemble a revolutionary moment less and less.  Instead, it looks more like the same cat-and-mouse game that the powerful Egyptian military (and the ever-lurking, so-called ‘deep state’), with ties to the United States and a knack for secular realpolitik, has been playing with the today-confrontational, tomorrow-conciliatory Muslim Brotherhood for decades.

In short, Egypt 2013 looks a lot like Egypt 2003. Or 1993. Or even 1973.  The Muslim Brotherhood and the countervailing political-military structure have been repeating the same game year after year, decade after decade.

That’s good news for those who are worrying that Egypt looks a lot like Algeria 1991 instead.

The Egypt-Algeria analogy looms ominously today, so it’s worth considering the similarities in some detail.  After nearly three decades of rule by the National Liberation Front (FLN, جبهة التحرير الوطني), the guerrilla-group-turned-ruling-party that once liberated Algeria from the French during the bloody war of independence in the 1950s and the early 1960s, Algerians had grown unruly over their country’s progress.  On the back of popular protests against Algeria’s government in 1989 over poor economic conditions, officials instituted local elections in 1990.  The surprise winner of those elections was the Islamic Salvation Front, a hastily constructed coalition of disparate Islamic elements.

When the Algerian government held national elections in December 1991 to elect a new parliament, the Islamic Salvation Front performed even better, winning 188 out of 231 seats in the first round of the election.  The Algerian military promptly canceled the second round of the elections and retroactively canceled the first round, to the relief of the ruling elite that comprised the Algerian pouvoir.  The decision also relieved diplomats in Paris and, especially, Washington, where policymakers on the cusp of winning the Cold War did not envision that the new pax Americana should involve landslide victories throughout the Muslim world for Islamic fundamentalists who had no real passion for democracy.  As Edward Djerejian scoffed at the time, a victory for the Islamists might amount to ‘one man, one vote, one time.’

The military quickly ousted Algeria’s 13-year ruler Chadli Bendjedid for good measure, then banned the Islamic Salvation Front and instituted military rule.

Sound familiar?

The comparison is particularly worrisome because Algeria’s Islamists fought back with full force and the country descended into a bloody civil war.  Although the military subdued what had become an Islamist guerrilla force by the end of the 1990s, strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika took power in 1999, he remains in power (if not in great health) today, and Algeria has been a semi-authoritarian state ever since.  So much for Algeria’s short-lived foray into democracy.

But if there is reason to believe that Egypt is merely falling back into long-established familiar patterns between the military and the Islamists, which have tussled for years without escalating their differences into a full-fledged civil war, and that bodes well for Egypt’s short-term and medium-term stability.

Sure, the faces and the names have changed.  Hosni Mubarak’s sclerotic three-decade reign is firmly in the past, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi was forced into retirement, Omar Suleiman died, and Ahmed Shafiq lost the June 2012 presidential runoff to Morsi.  But a new coterie of secular and military power-brokers, like El-Sisi and newly enthroned vice president Mohamed ElBaradei have risen in their stead and maybe one day, nationalist neo-Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahi and Ambien-variety Muslim democrats like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.  Egypt’s priority now is to keep either side from any radical lurches.  But as long as El-Sisi doesn’t launch a wholesale slaughter of Muslim Brotherhood protesters, it seems unlikely that Egypt could unravel into the kind of civil war that plagued Algeria for a decade.

The bad news is that doesn’t bode well for Egypt’s experiment in democracy over the past two years.  

As Steve Clemons wrote in The Atlantic yesterday, the military’s unilateral decision to oust Morsi means that the Muslim Brotherhood has no reason to place trust in democratic institutions anytime soon, and he suggests, quite rightly, that Morsi’s restoration might allow for a reshuffling of the political deck in Egypt.  That outcome would respect the legitimacy of Morsi’s election a year ago and give the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters a reason to keep working within Egypt’s political framework.  According to UPI reports, the transitional government and the Muslim Brotherhood may be trying to negotiate something similar — a face-saving deal that would allow Morsi to resign and provide the Muslim Brotherhood a much-reduced seat at the table as interim president Adly Mansour and El-Sisi try to figure out what comes next.

But El-Sisi and others can hardly be enthusiastic about launching new elections.  What if the Muslim Brotherhood wins again?  Even if they don’t win (or, worse, if the generals ban the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation), the more radical, pro-sharia Salafist movement is certain to benefit.  The Salafists, having organized into the Al-Nour Party (حزب النور‎, Arabic for ‘Party of the Light’), are now a critically important element within Egypt’s post-Morsi political landscape.  By comparison, ElBaradei and the other liberal politicians that now lead the secular National Salvation Front (جبهة الإنقاذ الوطني‎) have a pretty wimpy track record in the most recent elections.

A month after Morsi was removed from power, he remains under indefinite detention, and Morsi’s prime minister, the one-time water minister Hisham Qandil has already been summarily sentenced to a year in prison.  Despite promises a month ago from El-Sisi and Mansour that elections would be scheduled quickly, we still have no idea today when elections will be held.  In an otherwise fascinating interview with The Washington Post‘s Lali Weymouth, El-Sisi hilariously evades whether he will run for president himself:

Are you going to run for president?

I want to say that the most important achievement in my life is to overcome this circumstance, [to ensure] that we live peacefully, to go on with our road map and to be able to conduct the coming elections without shedding one drop of Egyptian blood.

But are you going to run?

You just can’t believe that there are people who don’t aspire for authority.

Is that you?

Yes. It’s the hopes of the people that is our [hope]. And when the people love you – this is the most important thing for me.

So while El-Sisi, ElBaradei and Mansour may yet cobble together a stable government that turns its focus to the pressing problems of alleviating unemployment, developing better power and water infrastructure and boosting GDP growth, it may not be a government with an incredible amount of representative legitimacy.

That’s a fairly disappointing outcome, perhaps, especially after all the promise of the Arab Spring and the hopeful moments that sprang from Tahrir Square in February 2011.  It might mean that Egypt is entering a kind of 21st century Kemalist arrangement where the military ‘guarantees’ Egyptian democracy by booting Islamist governments every decade or so.  But that’s still better than a decade-long Algerian-style civil war in the world’s largest Arab country.

Moreover, the parallel between Egypt 2013 and Algeria 1991 always had other difficulties.  Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have become genuinely unpopular after presiding for 12 months over a crumbling infrastructure and a weak economy.  But despite their short-lived local government experience in 1990-91, the Islamic Salvation Front never had the chance to screw up governing Algeria.  Algerians were also more primed for military resistance after the long, grueling experience of the colonial-era war for independence from France that ended less than three decades before the civil war began in 1992, its imprint still fresh on Algerian society.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, is an organization with long-standing roots within Egyptian society that has mostly played by the rules for decades in Egypt, in contrast to the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, which didn’t exist before 1989 and accordingly had no such longstanding history with the ruling pouvoir.

Notwithstanding the real tensions in Egypt today that could yet spiral out of control, it’s nonetheless difficult to imagine Morsi, or even the Brotherhood’s more conservative leaders, such as Khairat el-Shater, leading Islamic soldiers into guerrilla war against the state.

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