It’s 1991 in Egypt (Algeria Redux)

Karl Marx once wrote that history repeats itself, but the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.  He was writing of 19th century political struggles between republicans and Bonapartists in France, but he could just as well have had today’s North Africa in mind.

Twenty years ago in Algeria the Islamist FIS party appeared to have won the country’s first popular elections; but before victory was declared the military rulers of Algeria anulled the results and seized power.  The result was a tragedy of immense proportions, as the Islamists began a civil war that claimed over 100,000 lives and ended in an authoritarian military regime.

Today, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood appeared to have won control of Egypt’s government by popular elections — first winning a majority of seats in the new Parliament, then gaining what exit polls show as a victory for the Presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi.  But before a victory in the Presidential ballot was announced, Egypt’s military rulers dissolved the Parliament and passed emergency decrees to hand themselves dominant power, emasculating the Presidency and giving themselves full legislative authority.

At the moment, the announcement of a winner in the Presidential election has been delayed.  The election authorities say this is because so many irregularities have been alleged that they need more time to investigate them.  This may be a convenient excuse.  Historically, when controversial elections are run by biased authorities, and counting is delayed, it is because the authorities do not like the results and are looking for ways to change the outcome.  I think it highly likely that the military’s favored candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, will be declared the winner, regardless of what the votes actually showed.  It is just too tempting for the military to now humiliate their long-time adversaries, seize full power (no one in the international community nor within Egypt leapt up in outrage when the military grabbed full control of lawmaking from an elected legislature, so why not grab the Presidency as well), and proclaim the fiction they love, that the people of Egypt embrace the military as their natural leaders and not the Muslim Brotherhood.

I doubt that this will lead to full scale civil war on the order of Algeria; Egypt’s revolutionary process already has too many trappings of a farce, with strange twists and turns, a huge cast of characters moving on and off stage, and no resolution of long standing plot issues.  But there will be elements of tragedy as well.  There may be street battles, and the problem will remain of what to do with the Muslim Brotherhood and its well-organized political apparatus that has the loyalty of one-third or more of the population.  Should they be banned as a party?  Co-opted with ministerial positions?  Allowed to contest future parliamentary and presidential elections in an open and fair manner?  And what will the people of Egypt do — return to the street, or remain passive and exhausted from 18 months of turmoil?  And how will the economy react?  Will further uncertainty hinder growth, or will a united military regime be good for recovery?

Judging from past revolutions, if the military seizes the presidency as well, they will not be able to hold it for long.  At some point, popular resentment and the street will bubble up again; perhaps this year, but if not then next year in protest at the economy or the military’s policies.  Then the revolution may resume — but this time likely with a  more radical tinge, and a more ruthless Muslim Brotherhood determined not to be cheated again.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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2 Responses to It’s 1991 in Egypt (Algeria Redux)

  1. Raja M. Ali Saleem says:

    In Algeria, military/authoritarian forces won in 1992 but times have changed and the circumstances are different. As you point out, now the whole world is watching; Egyptians know that they can change governments; and Muslim Brotherhood is much more organized and powerful party than the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party of Algeria.

    Western world, and particularly US, are also under intense observation. Islamists have long claimed that the US would never allow democracy in the Muslim countries as it would hurt US interests. Now Muslims would like to see the US put its love of democracy above its perceived interests and support democratic forces (Some people in US think that by supporting Egyptian military, they are helping Israel. Nothing can be further than truth. As you pointed out, the inevitable will happen, if not now than later, and then Israel will have to deal with a much more radical regime).

    Unfortunately, the signs are not very encouraging. I hope the current US policy of condemning SCAF actions and still keeping the $2 billion annual aid flowing will fool some people.

  2. david says:

    Most Egyptians are exhausted. They seek stability. But they will not tolerate another military regime that does not represent the will of the people. If Shafik is declared the winner, there will be massive street protests. I sincerely hope those that have actual tangible influence on the SCAF such as the American government put heavy pressure on the Council to allow a democratic transition to continue to fruition. Anyone who really knows Egypt and has lived there would say Egypt will be the next Algeria – it’s just not in Egyptians’ blood, nor their culture or demography. Egypt’s future is as a moderate Islamist state, with a strong role for the military ala Turkey, and a democratic legislature. Noone, especially Tantawi, can stop this from realization now.

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