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.