On June 20, 2012, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced that results of the presidential electoral campaign would be delayed indefinitely. This news came six days after SCAF’s dissolution of the Egyptian Parliament. These maneuvers, understandably, raised fears among many of a military coup or a blood-soaked, renewed revolution—this time, with Islamists at the helm. Enter “the Algerian scenario,” in which many observers feared military-backed (and former regime strong-man) Ahmed Shafik would be imposed on citizens whose popular support had fallen to Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This doomsday theory presupposed that Egypt would suffer a repeat of the violence that rocked Algeria in the wake of the 1992 election cancellation. Twenty years ago, following the decision of Algeria’s third president, Chadli Benjedid, to usher in an era of pluralistic reforms, the National Liberation Front (the country’s deeply entrenched ruling party), backed by the Algerian military, seized power over fears of the rising power of the democratically elected Islamist movement, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), led by Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj.
After the June 20th announcement by SCAF, the Algerian scenario spread like wildfire across Twitter, the blogosphere, and much of the mainstream news. This apocalyptic vision was also shared by veteran journalists, such as Robert Fisk. Middle East Journal Editor Michael Collins Dunn was one of the few commentators to argue against the Algerian hypothesis.
The hysteria continued to spread despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s clear denials that an Algerian civil war scenario would unfold in Egypt. Even after Morsi was declared president these concerns continued. President Morsi’s on July 8, 2012, against the wishes of SCAF, prompted generals to call an emergency meeting and revived predictions of the Algerian scenario in the media.
Egypt is on the brink, but of what—precisely—remains to be seen.
A Shallow Comparison
The facile recourse to the Algerian cautionary tale, while understandable, is profoundly worrying for two reasons. First, this analytical model presupposes a vision of deterministic history, in which chaotic, extended bloodshed is inevitable, a prediction that is not supported by in-depth research. Undeniably, Algeria and Egypt share a few similarities, including a continent and structures of governance in which a military-backed regime has confronted an Islamist opposition during a period of emerging democratic pluralism. Yet, these facts are insufficient to strip away the agency of political actors. Secondly and more critically, since the 1990s, regional authoritarian regimes in Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia have actively drawn on the worrisome specter of Algeria to stave off calls for pluralistic reform and quash popular discontent. In a tense period of political transition, any invocation of the Algerian scenario must be carefully scrutinized, as it has often served a political purpose for the ruling coalitions.
Given the contentious political climate in Egypt at the moment, violent clashes are to be expected. However, there is a vast difference between potential violence and the decade of full-scale guerrilla combat that plagued Algeria in the Years of Blood (alternatively known as the “Red Decade,” or in a euphemism of many Algerian youth today, “what happened”). While some similarities exist between Algeria in 1992 and Egypt today, the structure of the Islamist movements in the two countries differ greatly, as do historical regionalisms, the nation building process, the electoral system’s development, and the position of minority communities.
Contrasting Islamist Movements
Consider, for example, the organizational components and historical presence of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which are vastly different from the Algerian FIS. The Brotherhood’s appearance on the political landscape came quite early in modern-day Egyptian history. This public participation (whether through sincerity or the cynicisms of realpolitik) has translated into a slow dynamism of strategies, objectives, and positions on violence. Although long illegal, the Muslim Brotherhood’s evolution into party politics has resulted in the development of relatively coherent political platforms and the eschewing of violence as a means for political change.
By contrast, the Algerian FIS was hurriedly formed in the wake of the October 1988 Algiers riots, after which the Chadli regime began to institute democratic overtures and a pluralistic political opening. The Algerian regime’s brief trial period for party elections allowed for the rapid emergence of the FIS, in the wake of Chadli’s reforms—and eventually, served as the catalyst of the experimentation’s abrupt and violent end.
The FIS’ formation as a “front,” rather than a movement, or a political party per se, contributed to its umbrella-like structure. The FIS subsumed a range of ideological views far more diverse than the constraints of the older, more established Muslim Brotherhood. Organizationally, the FIS included militant preacher-turned-politician Ali Benhadj’s flamboyant rejections of democracy, as espoused at Friday prayers, as well as the more temperate National Liberation Front (FLN) Liberation War veteran Abbasi Madani.
As the 1990s dragged on, the violence in Algeria escalated. This was not merely a result of the actions of the FIS, but also because of the creation of autonomous, loosely-structured Armed Islamic Groups (GIA). These groups were beyond the control of Islamist leaders or the governmental apparatus. In an almost fractalized pattern of security and retribution, the government created its own Self-Defense Groups (GLD), arming citizens in rural areas where the state was either unwilling to act or absent. The question for Algeria has long been, “who is killing who?”
Parallels to these developments simply do not exist within the Egyptian Islamist movement. As such, structural distinctions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Algerian armed groups render an exact replica highly unlikely at present.
Differing Historical Legacies and Locations
Two factors account for the violence that erupted in Algeria, which bode well for Egypt. The first is the legacy of independence struggle and de-colonization. The intersection of these historical axes, colonial and post-colonial, are often overlooked by journalists and analysts. The second is the imperatives of geopolitics.
The shared cultural imaginary of post-colonial nations profoundly influences contemporary politics, and is often painfully contentious. The violent nature and temporal proximity of Algeria’s Independence War contributed greatly to the escalation of the conflict in the 1990s. When the 1992 elections were cancelled, the bitter struggle for independence from France was a mere generation away. Many liberation fighters still held visible roles as powerful, government figures. The ruling regime and FIS leaders were unafraid to capitalize on that legacy. Each group viewed the roots of its own legitimacy as emerging from the battle against France for the soul of a nation. Abassi Madani himself served in the Liberation War, and later, split from the ruling FLN, alleging vast corruption that hijacked the aims of the original Algerian Revolution. Similarly, the FIS’ more radical Benhadj was the son of a shahid (martyr) in the fight against France.
Initial uprisings following the cancellation of the 1992 elections quickly spiraled into a zero-sum conflict that raised accusations of French colonial collaboration well into the present day. In fact, the civil war’s violence revisited the very same villages suspected of aiding the French during the Liberation War. The impact of Algeria’s struggle for independence can be seen in the symbolic anchors of national identity and political rhetoric; their relevance to contemporary politics must not be discounted.
Without downplaying English brutality during Egypt’s colonization, French-occupied Algeria is notorious in the ranks of imperial atrocities (rivaling only, perhaps, Italian Fascist Libya and the Belgian Congo). A generation before Algeria’s violent struggle, Egyptian independence was won through a process of political negotiation. At the present moment—in 2012—the era of Egyptian independence from colonialism is simply too distant to give legitimacy to SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other political actor in Egypt.
As further proof of the raw legacy left by the Liberation War, which visibly operated throughout the 1990s, sympathizers with the Algerian State are still quick to refer to FIS members as the children of harkis—Algerians who aided the French during independence. While xenophobic discourse is on the rise in contemporary Egypt, we have yet to see references made to colonial-era betrayal, which continues to factor into present-day Algerian political discourse.
Contentious debates concerning the place of religion in politics also highlight a major difference between the colonial inheritance of Egypt and Algeria. The concept of “secularism” in Anglophone and Francophone discourse differs in important ways. While “secularism” may indeed be a neologism in Arabic, linguistic colonialism accounts for a very different understanding of the concept as it operates on the present political scene. As post-colonial states struggled to define systems of governance in the wake of Western colonization, the transmission of secularism as an idea reflected an approach inherited from their previous colonizers. Although the English “secular” suggests a division of religious and State power, the French “laïcité” carries with it connotations of governmental control over, and suppression of, the religious sector.
The foundations of the modern Egyptian and Algerian nation-states differ, additionally, in the manner in which each chose to negotiate the status of ethnic and religious minorities. French colonial brutality in Algeria resulted in a reactionary process of Arabization after independence—leading, much later, to Kabyle rebellion against the institutionalization of a rigid identity politics. A similar process of Arabization has not, however, occurred in Egypt. The language of Egypt’s Coptic community has long been predominately confined to the realm of liturgy, while Algeria’s Amazigh (Berber) community continues to use the Kabyle mother tongue as a language of daily life.
Similarly, religious differences within Egypt have been more significant, making religious symbols less potent for purposes of political mobilization. Unlike the overwhelming number of members of the Egyptian Coptic community, Algeria’s religious population—if not ethnic minorities—proved vastly more homogenous at the time of the 1992 election cancellation. This factor draws upon the shared mythology of Liberation discourse: whereas Algeria’s decolonized population shared religious metaphors harnessed in the struggle against France, more plural Egypt has a more distant and varied vocabulary for the legacy of independence struggle.
Realities of Geopolitics
From the shared memory of colonial struggle, we arrive to the sad realities of contemporary geopolitics. Legendary Egypt, umm ad-dunya (the mother of the world), is widely considered the capital of the Arab World, located at a strategic point adjacent to Israel. Although the violence raging across Algeria in the 1990s worried neighbors Tunisia and Morocco (as well as France, to a lesser extent), the geographical importance of Israel in the eyes of global powers is incomparable. The strategic location of Egypt would incite global powers to act—and quickly—if an Algerian scenario loomed on the horizon. Should more proof be required, we need look no further than the Pentagon’s call for SCAF to relinquish power to civilian control. The European Union has also articulated its preference for a Morsi victory. In 1992, no such powerful international backers spoke up on behalf of the Algerian FIS.
In the aftermath of Egyptian independence, the colonial legacy did not result in such a widespread exodus of foreigners, or foreign media. By contrast, following the 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight and a bombing at Boumedienne International Airport two years prior, France suspended all flights to the North African nation for years, and international journalists were visibly absent from the scene.
We would be hard-pressed to imagine a scenario in which international powers would willingly withdraw from Egypt without extreme pressure. Part of this has to do with economic imperatives and local specificities. As a regional oil producer, post-independence Algeria was able to stave off economic problems (for a time) as well as foreign financial support, particularly in terms of tourism. As the beneficiary of Pharanoic history, Egypt has long been integrated into the booming dollar economy fueled by the tourist industry.
A fundamental lesson the world has failed to learn about the so-called Arab Spring is that backing authoritarianism over democracy is not an antidote to unrest. For decades, dictators raised the specter of Algeria’s Years of Blood to muzzle populations seeking change. The tired, albeit fashionable comparisons, such as “Tunisia is not Egypt” and “Libya is or will be Iraq and Afghanistan,” have given way to the equally inane “Egypt is Algeria.” Although these regional analogies are, on the one hand, inevitable, they are nonetheless reductive—and sometimes, dangerously so. The specificities of post-colonial nations cannot be overlooked, lest we wish a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the case of an Algerian doomsday scenario, academics, commentators, and citizens must remain wary of stoking fears without nuanced consideration of the complexities within collective symbols of national identity and the pressing necessities of geopolitics. This is even more urgent when the analytical model in question has, itself, been harnessed to forestall change.
In this historical light, what are we to make of the election announcement delay, and the meetings on Parliament’s reinstatement in Egypt? SCAF may, at times, overplay its hand, but it is far from ignorant. Could SCAF be wrangling behind the scenes with the Muslim Brotherhood, working out a power-sharing deal amenable to elites rather than the voting population and the revolutionary reformers? As rumors of secret machinations between SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood swirl, is the Algerian cautionary tale deliberately invoked to force a tired populace into submission? Perhaps. Perhaps not. At this point, many things are plausible, if not possible. The outcome is far from predetermined, but the apocalypse is not, necessarily, now.