Darkness at the End of the Tunnel

August 21, 2013

In Blog

Egypt’s Algerian Moment

Did Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi just set Cairo on the path to its own “black decade”?


Despite the roughly 1,000 miles of Libyan desert that lie between them, Algeria and Egypt have never seemed as close as they do now. When Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi forcibly removed President Mohamed Morsy from office in early July, a few far-sighted observers wondered if Egypt’s military was about to repeat the tragic Algerian mistake that set off a decade of civil war in 1992. Events over the last week underscore the brutal similarities — but it is far from clear that either tragedy was the result of mere miscalculation. Instead, then and now, the tragedies have been largely willed.

After a great spasm of popular revolts shook Algeria in 1988, the government — controlled by the country’s army and the socialist National Liberation Front (FLN) since independence in 1962 — undertook a series of civil and political reforms. A new constitution in 1989 unshackled the press and political system, allowing Islamist as well as secular parties to speak freely and run for political office. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a motley collection of both moderate and militant Islamist movements, rode this wave of liberalization to victory in a series of municipal and provincial elections in 1990.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the generals found themselves at a crossroads: Given the surging strength of the FIS, should they proceed with national elections or simply deep-six the experiment in democracy? In the end, they did both. Despite deep misgivings on the part of the army and many secular parties, Algerians streamed to the urns in December 1991 for the first round of parliamentary elections. The results confirmed the strength of the FIS and left the army, the FLN, and most secular Algerians deflated. The Islamists won 188 of 231 seats, while the FLN was left with the electoral crumbs — a mere 15 seats.

Just days before the second round of voting was scheduled to take place in mid-January, the military and its civilian intelligence appendages — known as le pouvoir, power, or deep state — forced the resignation of democratically elected President Chadli Benjedid, who had announced he was willing to work with an FIS-led government, and scrapped the elections. Le pouvoir, meanwhile, began to arrest those FIS leaders who had not already fled or gone underground. While the generals assured Algerians that they would return power to a civilian government as soon as stability was reestablished, their soldiers were constructing concentration camps for thousands of suspected Islamic militants in the Sahara. In effect, they practiced the very same counterinsurgency methods the French used against them during the bloody war of independence between 1954 and 1962 — an irony not lost on historians.

Nonetheless, both inside and outside Algeria, many felt an uncomfortable sense of relief. Secular Algerians — mostly urban, educated, and francophone — worried that if the second round of voting took place in January, they would face the prospect of life under a regime that practiced what U.S. diplomat Edward Djerejian would fatefully term “one man, one vote, one time.” The FIS, for its part, did little to dispel the seculars’ fears; Ali Belhaj, leader of the FIS’s radical wing, declared in 1992: “When we are in power, there will be no more elections because God will be ruling.”

The extremity of Belhaj’s words easily drowned out the conciliatory pronouncements made by more moderate FIS leaders — like Abbasi Madani, who insisted that “pluralism is a guarantee of the cultural wealth and diversity needed for development” — and set off alarm bells in Paris and Washington. While the French worried about the prospect of an Islamist government running the affairs of a country with which it had such complex historical and economic ties, Americans feared the implications that these changes would have for Israel’s security and saw the Algerian military as more sympathetic to their regional ambitions. 

As a result, the international response was at least implicitly sympathetic to the Algerian military, with French President François Mitterrand going farther and supporting the coup outright. His prime minister, Alain Juppe, likewise cast it as a blow against terrorism. While the military’s actions raised serious philosophical issues about democracy and its limitations, few thought this was the time or place to debate them — all the more so as the first waves of bloodletting crested with a series of civilian massacres carried out by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a militant organization created by members of the FIS and staffed with legions of disaffected and unemployed youths.

In the wake of the subsequent assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf — perhaps ordered by the military, unhappy with the president’s anti-corruption policy — the generals declared a state of emergency and waged a merciless campaign to crush the Islamist opposition. The rest of the decade, during which more than 100,000 civilians were killed and countless others were maimed or raped, was consumed by civil war. Most historians have rightly been harsh on both sides, and many view the military’s decision to crack down on the FIS as tragic blunder. Ray Takeyh, a former U.S. State Department official and current fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, described it as one “of the greatest miscalculations in modern Algerian history.”

But these assessments beg crucial questions. Most obviously, as many observers are now wondering about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, what if the greater miscalculation belonged to the FIS? Put another way, what if scuttling the election was not a miscalculation on the part of le pouvoir, but a deliberate decision to invite open conflict in which it could eviscerate its Islamist opponents? Of course, the generals may well have been surprised by the radicalization and tenacity of the armed Islamist groups, and how the counterinsurgency would spill across the Mediterranean and into France. (The 1995 metro bombings in France and the attempted Air France hijacking in 1994 are the most memorable instances.) And perhaps they did not anticipate that the fever would not break for another 10 years, leaving scars that will long mark the Algerian nation.

But by means either Machiavellian or misbegotten, the Algerian generals succeeded in eliminating a credible Islamic interlocutor. By banning the FIS and pursuing moderate figures as relentlessly as extremist ones, they guaranteed the radicalization and fragmentation of political Islam in Algeria. As a result, by the end of the decade, the country’s cagey new president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was able to offer an amnesty to the remaining armed groups that effectively ended the civil war with the military on top.

During the so-called “black decade,” Algeria’s civil society, not the generals, paid the price for taking on the FIS militarily. Moreover, not only did the Algerian military’s merciless tactics pummel the insurgency (and an untold number of innocents), but the army also succeeded in reinventing itself — much like the French army had done during Algeria’s war of independence. As the historian Luis Suarez has noted, the army both “modernized its tools of repression” and became the most important employer in Algeria. In an ironic turn of events, many of the unemployed youths who had voted for the FIS were now, in pursuit of paychecks, enlisting in the fight against them.

In the long run, le pouvoir emerged triumphant. On the verge of being neutralized by the FIS in 1992, they instead became and remain Algeria’s most powerful institution. This, of course, brings us back to Egypt’s situation. The historian James Le Sueur has suggested that Algeria’s generals in 1992 had their eyes on Turkey as their model — maintaining a secular state where the army’s preeminence, power, and perquisites went unquestioned. Of course, 20 years later the Turkish model itself has dramatically changed. Is it possible, then, that the Egyptian generals are now focused on an Algerian model?

With the violent resurgence of the Egyptian deep state over the past month, the similarities are certainly striking. Following on the heels of the army’s mass killing of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators last week in Cairo, 37 pro-Morsy prisoners were reportedly killed while in the custody of security forces, while another 25 police officers were murdered by Islamist fighters in the Sinai. Other, perhaps more telling, parallels involve the Egyptian military’s detention of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood officials in secret locations; its insistence, now parroted by the Egyptian media, that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization; the imposition of a state of emergency; and the evaporation of a political center where both sides could conceivably meet.

The most dismal similarity is that both the Algerian and Egyptian generals declared that, rather than executing a coup against democracy, they were defending democracy against Islamic fanatics attempting to hijack the political process. Two decades later in Algeria, democracy remains elusive, and army and intelligence chiefs still play a powerful role in government. But the fact that the seismic events of the Arab Spring barely touched Algeria suggests that the army succeeded in its principal goal: defending its own interests against an independent Islamist political force.  

The ambitions of Sisi and the Egyptian deep state may be no different, and their hardline attitude is certainly similar to that of the Algerian generals. During the 1990s, le pouvoir was divided between two camps: the conciliateurs and the eradicateurs. Whereas the former sought a political answer to the civil war, the latter insisted on a military solution. In the end, the eradicateurs carried the day, and it was only after a decade of civil war that the conciliateurs were allowed to play a productive role in working with what was left of the Islamist opposition. In Egypt, it is clear that the eradicateurs have also won the first round against the conciliateurs. If they continue to shape the state’s response to the current crisis, Egypt may well be headed for its own black decade.