What Algeria 1992 can, and cannot, teach us about Egypt 2013

In the weeks after the 1991 elections, official Algerian rhetoric too was replete with appeals to the popular will and the promises of a swift and total return to democracy. Promises that, two decades on, have yet to be fulfilled. 


Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi protest in front of the Republican Guard headquarters in Nasr City in Cairo, Egypt. Demotix/Nameer Galal. All rights reserved.

Over the past few days, as Egypt sinks ever more alarmingly into the quicksand of civil strife and political impasse, the question of whether we’re seeing the germination of an “Algerian scenario” is a persistent leitmotif of the coverage. With minor exceptions, most of those evoking the Algerian comparison have been doing so in order to discard it as, at best, inadequate and and, at worst, misleading. Of course, the Algerian precedent is not the only one being floated. For decades, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post points out, “from Buenos Aires to Bangkok, crowds have begged generals to oust democratically elected governments and cheered when they responded”.

Let us state the obvious: no two historical events or socio-political contexts are ever the same, and it is pointless to pretend otherwise. Nevertheless, a careful analysis of the parallels, patterns and similarities between 1992’s Algeria and 2013’s Egypt remains desperately needed yet largely absent from the current discussion.

Algeria: what happened in 1992?

On December 26, 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party won a remarkable 181 seats (out of 232) in Round One of the country’s first ever free legislative elections. Under pressure from the Army, then-President Chadli Bendjedid resigned and the elections were summarily cancelled. Instead, an unelected five-member committee was charged with steering the country towards new elections and a return to democracy.

I describe what happened next in an earlier column:

“Against accusations that this was simply a cynical coup d'état by the military leadership, the move was presented by many within the democratic and secular movement as a necessary last ditch attempt to "save the republic" from an imminent Islamist takeover. Two decades on, the debate rages on: some hold the government responsible for trampling on the popular will, others blame the Islamists for totalitarian designs that left others no other options, with many blaming both sides for forcing a zero-sum game on everyone else. Everyone agrees, however, that what followed was a dark decade of untold tragedy and suffering.”

Setting aside the ongoing debate over whether Morsi’s ouster was a military coup, the parallels with Egypt’s current predicament seem hard to ignore. Indeed, the battle over semantics (Is it a “military intervention”, “a democratic coup”, a “revolutionary act III”?) is itself a familiar echo of the debates among Algerians twenty years ago (still continuing two decades on) over the cancellation of the 1991-2 elections. (Was it a classical coup, constitutional? a Republican revival?) Back then, as seems to be the case in Egypt today, both sides felt the answer was self-evident.  

Why Egypt is not Algeria

In a piece entitled “Why Egypt is not Algeria“ (subsequently echoed in the western media) the Egyptian academic Khalid Fahmy has offered four key reasons why the comparison doesn’t hold worth examining. First he argues, whereas, “the FIS never had a chance of forming a government” in Algeria, “the MB did win, occupy the presidency, dominate parliament and form a government”. As such, it is the MB’s “disastrous mismanagement and not a military fiat that caused their downfall”.

Things were slightly more complicated than he seems to suggest here. For a start, the FIS did win and govern. In June 1990, it scored a resounding victory in the local and regional elections, taking control of more than half of the country’s municipal councils. This is an episode very few people seem to remember, yet it is important. The FIS’s record over the subsequent eighteen months was, by common consent, a disaster. Moreover, at the 1991 elections, in a hugely favourable electoral climate, the FIS in fact lost nearly a quarter of the votes it had secured a year earlier. For many secularists, this represented the best evidence that the FIS should have been given more, not less, opportunity to face the realities of governance.  

Secondly, Fahmy says, “the Algerian elections were not the result of a revolution the way the Egyptian elections were”. Again, this is true only when seen through a rather narrow frame. The 1991 elections in Algeria were the culmination of a democratic opening triggered largely by the events of October 1988, which saw the biggest mass riots in Algerian history and led to the drafting of a new constitution, the abolition of the one party system and the introduction of an independent press. It is true that, in terms of genesis, scale and dynamics, the events of October 88 share little with the January 25 revolution, but this doesn’t mean the 1991 elections emerged out of a vacuum.

Third, Fahmy argues that, unlike their Algerian counterparts in 1992, “Egypt’s Islamists have already had their taste of violence” and have discovered and accepted, that it was a failed strategy. One hopes he is correct about the prospects for violence in Egypt: but his analysis nonetheless ignores the complex and long history of Islamist movements in Algeria. To pick one obvious (and ominous) counter-example, the Algerian Islamic Armed Movement engaged in attacks on civilian and military targets around the capital, Algiers, from 1982 to 1987, when dozens of its members were arrested and tried. Many of those same militants later regrouped after the cancellation of the elections in 1992, joining the armed insurrection against the military.

Finally, Fahmy insists that “Egypt is still in a revolutionary moment … something that was missing in Algeria in 1991”. This, I believe, is the strongest and most compelling of his arguments. Millions of Algerians did not pour into the streets either to demand or denounce the cancelling of elections in 1992. However, while the Algerian military certainly could not point to massive shows of popular opinion to legitimise its actions, it could nevertheless draw on a very wide spectrum of vocal support from political parties, media outlets, and civil society organisations, as well as of numerous intellectuals and artists who all seemed to agree that “something had to be done” to “save the republic”. (Indeed, in response to appeals to the sanctity of electoral legitimacy, many at the time adopted quasi-Orwellian notions such as the ‘tyranny of the ballot box’ or ‘mere numerical democracy’).

Political consequences

As we begin to hear the many rationalisations and justifications for the (“reluctantly mounted”) ouster emanating from the anti-Morsi camp, I am struck by how much they echo those I heard, and sometimes defended, in 1992. This week, many activists and political leaders within the anti-Morsi alliance insist that “the military does not want to rule”, that the Army will not be allowed to hijack the revolution, or reverse its gains - exactly as pro-democracy Algerian activists and politicians promised us in 1992.

Of course, once the alliance with the military was accepted as an inevitable but lesser evil, its logic informed a succession of ever more dramatic concessions by the Algerian secular/democratic movement of democratic liberties that had been hard-earned through years of struggle. As the government closed Islamist newspapers, jailed FIS leaders and rounded up thousands of ordinary sympathisers into desert camps, self-appointed defenders of democracy looked away, convinced that this was all for the greater good. Of course, as was bound to happen, emergency laws that were ostensibly enacted to curb Islamist “destabilisation” efforts were, soon enough, extended to target the activities of the ‘good’ guys. Secular parties, which had vociferously defended the 1992 coup, soon found their ability to hold meetings, run newspapers or to organise protests considerably reduced under the very emergency laws they had hailed as necessary and legitimate months earlier.

A number of commentators this week, notably the eminent legal scholar Richard Falk, have detected a silver lining in the Egyptian military’s apparent reluctance to, “part company with the legitimating mandate of democracy.” While one hopes such optimism is warranted, it is equally crucial to keep in mind that in the weeks after the 1991 elections, official Algerian rhetoric too was replete with appeals to the popular will and the promises of a swift and total return to democracy. Promises that, two decades on, have yet to be fulfilled.

Of course, one must not dismiss the danger that elements and tendencies within political Islamism can represent to a people’s right and ability to express its will. The main argument used against allowing the FIS to reach power, now recylcled against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, is Islamism’s supposed inherent and sinister impulse to deploy democracy’s own mechanisms to subvert and eventually destroy democracy itself. While this is certainly a serious argument, (one that I subscribed too wholeheartedly at the time,) the Algerian experience has taught us that one cannot defeat authoritarian tendencies with authoritarian tools, and certainly not with authoritarian ideological justifications.

The other consequence of the alliance between the secular/democratic pole and the military hierarchy that accompanied the 1992 coup has been the consolidation and entrenchment of the role of the army as ultimate arbiter of the nation’s political life, and as such, the revival of the primacy of the military over the civilian.

For the past two decades, no serious political opposition has been able to achieve critical mass in large measure because of what happened in 1992. Segments of the population have never forgiven those who treated their votes with such contempt, while many secularists, however much they despise the autocratic rulers in place, still dread the prospect of what would come in their stead. As such, whatever the intentions behind the move to oust Morsi, one of its results is certainly that future presidents, no matter how legitimate or substantial their electoral victories, will govern with a sword of Damocles hanging above their heads, held not by the people but by an unaccountable institution primarily moved by self-interest. While it is true that not everyone in Egypt, or elsewhere, sees the primacy of the military as such a bad thing, I believe it is at the heart of the Arab world’s inability to shake off the shackles that have hampered its development over the past century.

Moral costs

The key and lasting parallel between the Algerian scenario and the Egyptian one relates to the  moral cost of military usurpation of the democratic process. Cancelling elections, like deposing elected leaders, is a deeply wounding experience for a nation’s sense of collective self, because it seems to reaffirm, however implicitly, that one segment of the population has a higher moral claim to have its vision, aspirations and desires taken seriously than any other.

As such, it fatally undermines the very social contract and national settlement that forms the basis of any cohesive, popular revolution. I am thinking here of the sense of utter alienation felt by many of those who had voted for the FIS, many of them first time voters after 30 years of abstention, who discovered their country’s future was run with only one section of its citizenry - the ‘good’, ‘responsible’, ‘acceptable’ Algeria – in mind.

And we see this today in Egypt: while those who support Morsi’s ouster are routinely portrayed as authentically representative of the Egyptian revolution and popular will, those who oppose it, no matter how numerous, are reflexively described as mere ‘Morsi or MB supporters’.

While many of those supporting the coup claim it was a painful option, the spectacle of air shows over the skies of Cairo and helicopters flying Egyptian flags over Tahrir in celebration can only deepen the sense of anger and betrayal felt by the millions of Egyptians who felt there was nothing to celebrate. (A frontpage headline in Al Ahram on Saturday read: “The Army joins the people’s joyful celebrations with air shows over Tahrir during the ‘Friday of Victory’).

Conclusion

As was the case in Algeria twenty years ago, how Egypt manoeuvres itself out of the current impasse largely depends not on what has already happened but on what is yet to come. In this regard, one cannot but be extremely worried by what has happened in the past few days since Morsi’s ouster.

The military leadership’s decision to close TV stations sympathetic to the Brotherhood, to issue arrest warrants for hundreds of its leaders and militants and to launch a process of prosecuting both Morsi and fellow leaders (for alleged misdeeds that apparently include 'Jan 25 Revolution crimes') is a dark echo of the corrosive vindictiveness that characterised the anti-FIS crackdown of early 1992, with disastrous consequences for all.

Calls for the Muslim Brotherhood to be disbanded and locked out of political life, as the Tamarrod movement has demanded, are dangerous in the extreme, not only because of their impact on the political actors but the message they send to the millions who voted for them. Encouragingly, Morsi‘s last statement before his arrest, calling on Egyptians to “preserve blood and to avoid falling into the swamp of infighting” is at odds with the discourse of the FIS back in 1992 -  which urged the people to rise up against the government.

Though the prospect of civil war in Egypt remains distant, the Algerian scenario is not incomparable (especially in light of Egypt’s relatively more heterogonous religious make-up.) The shooting and killing of dozens of MB protesters early on Monday morning is the sort of dangerous swerve that can prove hard to recover from.

More worrying still is the escalation between supporters of the two camps, a familiar feature of early 90s Algeria, with accusations of treason, murder and being anti-Islam becoming a constant refrain of exchanges across the social media. Unless this “sheep vs infidels” paradigm is actively resisted now – and by all sides - unless the demonization of opponents is publicly exposed as anti-revolutionary, anti-democratic, and anti-Egyptian, the slippery slide towards the irreparable can only accelerate. 

About the author

Hicham Yezza is an Algerian writer and human rights activist. He is the editor-in-chief of Ceasefire Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @HichamYezza and @Ceasefire_Mag

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