Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Middle Eastern Mad Libs: “Egypt is ____________”

by Steven A. Cook
July 15, 2013

Security personnel watch over supporters of former Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi during a demonstration outside the Republican Guard building in Cairo July 6, 2013 (Louafi Larbi/Courtesy Reuters). Security personnel watch over supporters of former Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi during a demonstration outside the Republican Guard building in Cairo July 6, 2013 (Louafi Larbi/Courtesy Reuters).

After the January 25 uprising, uninformed observers asked “Is Turkey the ‘model’ for Egypt?” or “Will Egypt follow Indonesia’s path?”  Comparisons are always useful in the effort to explain how the world works, but under the circumstances it seemed that people were flailing away looking for something, anything to make sense of a new vastly more complicated Middle East.  If Egypt was Turkey—which at the time looked more liberal and prosperous than it does now—then perhaps for the many challenges that lay ahead for Egyptians (and U.S. interests), all would end well.

The military’s July 3rd intervention has provided another opportunity to play the Egypt analogy game.  This time there was, however, a doomsday quality to the discussion.  Instead of an Egyptian Copenhagen criteria or Reformasi on the Nile, Egypt is now Algeria. Specifically, Algeria of the 1990s when more than 100,000 people were killed in a brutal civil conflict. The problem is: Egypt is Egypt and if analysts want to gain some traction on what might happen there, they should pay attention to Egypt rather than reacquainting themselves with le Pouvoir, Abbas Madani, the Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front, FIS)and Chadli Benjedid.

Here is what happened in Algeria:  In mid-January 1992, the Algerian officer corps pushed President Chadli Benjedid from office and nullified the national legislative elections that would have given the FIS a parliamentary majority. Even before the balloting took place, the President indicated that in the event of an Islamist victory he would come to terms with the Front.  Although Chadli may have believed that cohabitation was the best way for him to survive politically, the military was clearly unnerved at the prospect of cooperation between the president and the FIS.  In his memoirs, Major General Khaled Nezzar, who was Minister of Defense, indicates that the officers had resolved not to allow the Front to attain a parliamentary majority and thus consummate a deal with Chadli.

Observers tend to focus on the potential for a FIS majority in the National People’s Assembly as the threat to Algeria’s political order and a step toward the establishment as an Islamic state, but it was an apparent deal between the president and the FIS that was more relevant. Regardless of the FIS’s representation in the legislature, Algeria’s 1989 constitution vested the power to initiate constitutional changes with the presidency. Given Chadli’s flirtation with the FIS, the officers could not trust that he would be a firewall between the Front and the constitution so they struck before a second round of voting could begin. The army enjoyed the support of large segments of Algerian society including women’s groups, trade unions, and the secular-oriented Francophone elites.  In recalling the events of early 1992, Nezzar has written: “Certain leaders believed that halting the electoral process was a blow to the democratic process.  In reality it was precisely the contrary; stopping the elections assured the survival of the democratic process.”

Some of this sounds vaguely familiar to contemporary events in Egypt, but it is what happened next in Algeria that has people in Washington all spun up:  The Algerian military’s intervention radicalized the political arena, setting off a chain of events that plunged the country into almost a decade of violence.  The FIS itself did not immediately take up arms against the Algerian state, but ultimately created the Islamic Salvation Army, fearing that the militancy of other groups might undermine the Front’s support.   Even after the military was able to bring the violence to relatively manageable levels through a 1999 amnesty, radical off-shoots of the FIS and other groups continued to wage war against the Algerian state.  For example, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which had broken from another extremist group called the Armed Islamic Group, became al Qa’ida of the Islamic Maghreb in 2007.

One can certainly imagine the potential for radicalized politics in Egypt as a result of the military’s intervention, its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and the officers’ efforts to stabilize the Sinai. Yet one need not look 2,000 miles to the West for the scenario.  The insurrection in Algeria seems unlikely to be replicated in Egypt and it is not because as one Egyptian friend once told me, “We are the people of the valley, and they are the people of mountains and sand.”   Defense Minister Abdelfattah al Sisi may be applying significant pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood, but he does not seem to be the Egyptian analogue of Algeria’s eradicatuers—officers whose preferred policy was to wipe out the insurgency through force.  In keeping with a strategy they have employed since the January 25 uprising, the Egyptian military is more likely to try to manage the present conflict with the Brothers with a combination of arrests, some violence, and bare-knuckled negotiations.

The officers and the Brothers may ultimately miscalculate, but again the best “model” for Egypt is Egypt.  The low-level violence of the 1990s during which extremist groups took up arms against the state while the Brotherhood agitated against a regime that used the violence to justify closing whatever “political space” that had existed may be in store for Egypt.  Certainly present political dynamics make “back to the future” a more likely outcome than an Algeria-like conflagration, even taking into account the major differences between the Egypt of 1992 and the Egypt of 2013.

There is  no way of knowing for sure what will happen in Egypt.  And while comparing and contrasting cases are critical to understanding political phenomena, it is equally important to guard against facile analogy building because someone, somewhere wondered aloud if Egypt is Algeria.  It’s not; it is Egypt.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Shadi Ayyas,M.D.

    Egypt rebellion is unique — it is a Symbiotic relation between Public & Military to revolutionize a stagnant political crisis

  • Posted by Muhammad NaIya

    While it may be true that “there is no way of knowing for sure what will happen in Egypt” one fact overlooked by many is that this is a carefully ochestrated cuop against an elected government.
    Whatever the shortcomings of president Morsi and the MB by extention, it is the military SCAF that laid this trap. What with the draft constituition beqursthed to Morsi, an overly reactionery constituitional Cort and a prosecutor general 0all Mubarak loyalists- obviously ot os just a matter of time for the military to return. This is clearly supported by the appointment of the president of the constituitional court sand his rahther single-handed decalarations without any consultations except for his master -the military.
    Unfortunately thr US seems to be at best ambivalent but certainly open;ly in suppoert of the military coup against an elected governemnt in Egypt, was it to appease the “allies” for the loss of Mubarak?

  • Posted by Myriam

    Civilians have had it with terror and all levels of abuse…. And as Egypt witnessed the birth of MBs and political islam Egypt and its people will be their ultimate demise… For Egypt is moderate at heart & Egypt is Egypt

  • Posted by lisa

    Next 5 years: Egypt will fall into civil chaos as conflicting ideologies destroy cohesiveness and violence ensues. Egypt is opening itself up to a new tyranny. Ethiopia will control Egypt’s future within 4 years. There will be drought and Egypt will lose it’s global status as it’s leadership fumbles for direction.

  • Posted by Ahmad

    Street protests and demonstrations even massive ones may destabilize and dislodge a government leading to exit of a leadership. But the January 25th protests and demonstrations did not bring about any change in the regime in any significant and efficacious way that could be a handle for further progress. Viewed in this light Morsi’s election victory was a hollow one and his presidency a doomed one from the start.

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