What Can Egypt Learn from Algeria?
In Algeria in the late 1980s, a sense of despair hung over the country. After decades of oil-infused growth and increasing prosperity, the downslide in oil prices after 1986 virtually eliminated hopes of continued social mobility. The mood was manifested by the hitistes—young, unemployed men with nothing to do but simply be present in the public space, leaning against a wall. The hitistes were economically disenfranchised because of poor development policies and politically disenfranchised by Algeria’s corrupt, one-party system, which served as a thin veil for military rule. In 1988, citizens made their discontent known: large strikes and uprisings quickly gave way to a theater of chaos. Security forces responded with brutal repression, and five hundred lives were lost in what have become known as the “bread riots.” President Chadli Bendjedid delivered a speech announcing that the country would move forward with elections, and the rest is history.
If this scenario sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it is – sort of. In Egypt, a similar set of circumstances impelled the country to revolution, to an Islamist victory at the polls, and now to a focused reassertion of the authoritarian state. These similarities have inspired numerous recent comparisons between the two countries. Many authors have attempted to position Egypt as more or less like Algeria, as heading down a path towards an Algerian scenario, as confronted with a choice to replicate Algeria, or some other variant. The similarities between late-1980s Algeria and contemporary Egypt are evident in a broad chronology of events. After years of authoritarian rule, popular uprisings occurred that led to a democratic opening. An Islamist party then performed well in ostensibly democratic elections, though this party was eventually marginalized from the political sphere. The military subsequently reasserted power, and the outcast Islamist party was labeled as a “terrorist” organization amid allegations of ties to a variety of violent acts around the country. Ultimately, the society largely welcomed the return of military rule with relatively open arms, clearly longing for the days of stability.
However, Egypt today is not Algeria in 1988 for many reasons, several of which are particularly important to note. First, the elections in Algeria resulted from a top-down initiative by the Algerian regime intended to sidestep the revolutionary current (mainly labor strikes) that was moving through the country. The elections were tightly managed by the ruling regime, and the Islamist Front Islamique de Salut (FIS), despite winning the elections, was never given the chance to actually govern the country. ((In his article “What Algeria 1992 can, and cannot, teach us about Egypt 2013,” Hicham Yezza makes the correct and rarely-remembered point that the FIS did indeed govern in municipal elections. This is, of course, significant, but perhaps not as significant as the large portion of the population in Egypt who did demonstrate and still defend Morsi’s removal from power. Regardless of the military’s role in this removal, there was popular support for it (unlike in Algeria).))
This is an obvious contrast to the history of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt, which took power after democratic elections and faced intense popular criticism after attempting to (quite undemocratically) recentralize power. The significance here is that the boundaries of “legitimacy” for the FJP were not defined openly by the preceding regime, but rather through mechanisms of popular legitimation (as well as internal, perhaps “behind-the-scenes,” politics.)
Thus, fears that the Muslim Brotherhood may travel down the “path” of the FIS are already slightly misplaced. Additionally, concerns that the organization will devolve into an instigator of rampant terrorist activities are, if perhaps not out of the question, certainly exaggerated. Already the violent acts occurring in Egypt (in the Sinai for instance) have been claimed by extremist groups who have rejected ties to the Brotherhood. In the Algerian case, the armed faction of the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Army, declared public allegiance to the ostracized party and carried out violence in their name. The Muslim Brotherhood dabbled in such violent acts decades ago, but since their renunciation of violence in the 1970s, they have neither claimed responsibility for any sort of terrorist activity nor been formally convicted of such. It is very unlikely today that any proliferation of violence in Egypt could be directly linked to the Brotherhood’s inclusion in, or exclusion from, institutional politics.
A third difference, though perhaps not as definitive as the previous two, is that in the three years since the revolution in Egypt and during all three governing periods, citizens have been engaged with the public space. Civil society in Algeria at the time did not witness the kind of proliferation of grassroots mobilization that Egypt has seen recently. This civil society growth—and even nascent political pluralism—can act as its own system of checks and balances against both an entrenched state apparatus and violent extremism.
Perhaps most obvious, but still worth noting, is the fact that Egypt has not yet fully returned to authoritarian rule. It is true that the upcoming elections appear clouded by the military’s return to interim power, but even if Sisi announces a presidential bid (and it does appear likely that he will do so), the military will need to tread more lightly. Despite the popularly disseminated images of “Sisimania” during the most recent constitutional referendum, the future political climate in Egypt will be largely determined by upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. In Algeria, the largest waves of terrorist violence came nearly a decade after the FIS was marginalized from institutional politics; naturally, the socio-political and socio-economic dynamics of the country evolved—if not necessarily transformed—over the intervening years. Such evolution, at least as much as the initial marginalization of the FIS, created a climate that supported the emergence of sustained violence.
In assessing the similarities and differences between Egypt and Algeria, it is clear that there are ample examples of both. This neither condemns Egypt to travel the same path as Algeria, nor does it preclude it from a possible similar scenario. One could certainly draw the quick conclusion that, given Algeria’s history of violence since 1988 and lack of true democratic processes, Egypt would not want to emulate Algeria’s path. Thus, the question becomes not “is Egypt Algeria?” but “what can Egypt learn from Algeria?”
An independent public sphere is essential to socio-political health: In Algeria, not only was access to information carefully manipulated by the government, but the presence of terroristic violence offered a plausible narrative for maintaining this repression. Similar discourse is being used in Egypt, and whatever effect this may have on the radicalization of the Muslim Brotherhood, it will have grave consequences for the people of Egypt. Also, quite obviously, this repression did very little to actually quell terror activities, and the shutdown of channels of dissent (particularly in the marginalized rural areas) may have actually fueled the violence.
As much as the upcoming government’s support or repression of critical voices could influence potential violent groups, the actions of new and dynamic civil society groups (and the Egyptian populace in general) will also influence such groups. By holding the government accountable through peaceful negotiations, demonstrations, and grassroots organizing, civil society will be able to ensure both its own protection and the creation of institutional frameworks better equipped to govern the country. Although many of Egypt’s “liberals” have been slammed for their apologetic stances towards the military, others have continued to look critically at the discourse and actions of successive governments since 2011.
Pluralism is essential to political health: Cultivating true democratic processes definitely requires more active engagement beyond simply halting repressive state measures. It will be important for nascent political parties to be allowed to develop in a system that encourages their participation across all regions of Egypt. In Egypt’s upcoming elections, there will be a chance to structure fair quota systems as a good faith measure to allow for the continued development of a range of political parties.
In fact, this was one benefit of Algeria’s move towards a multi-party system. While the army/FLN nexus (Le Pouvoir) never truly relinquished power to any opposition, the opening-up of elections did allow for a new history and culture of political engagement to emerge. While this may not (at least to date) have brought any opposition party to rule, it has allowed for a greater access to information and leverage points in some measure of accountability.
Elections aren’t everything: In Algeria, tendencies towards conspiracy theory (propagated from all ends) lent to a climate of misinformation in which nobody really knew whom to trust. In such a climate, it is very difficult to develop truly democratic institutions. The state apparatus often employed a two-pronged approach to maintain plausible narratives of fear and stability: as the Algerian regime was enacting repressive measures on the ground to “combat” what were described as shadowy and diffuse terrorist networks, it was also simultaneously receiving kudos from the international community for steps taken in “democratic transition.” These accolades were presented mostly in praise of the elections processes themselves, which were monitored and tracked and displayed a measure of freeness and fairness despite the very obvious fact that power was never relinquished from the hands of Le Pouvoir. Obviously, even relatively free and fair elections were not enough to ensure true democracy in this instance.
This seems to be a lesson that Egypt has learned recently as well. The actions of, and demonstrations against, Muhammad Morsi proved that even in the instance of free and fair elections, democracy is not necessarily preserved. It will be the continued observance and development of the rule of law and institutions on the part of state actors that may restore confidence in Egypt’s efforts toward democratic development.
Economic reform must include measures for equitable development: Whatever the outcome of the upcoming elections, it will also be essential that Egypt’s institutions continue to be reformed and that the economy not be used as a tool to placate the people or to simply to court foreign investment for the benefit of a wealthy elite. Just before the 1988 uprisings in Algeria, the economic situation did display some similarities to that of Egypt (the most obvious difference being Egypt’s lack of oil). Algeria continued a period of liberalization and encouragement of foreign trade, which many economic analysts now clamor for in Egypt. Despite a return to more positive growth rates (around 3.7% average since 1995 ((Calculated by the author from World Bank’s data bank.))) and even after an eventual decline in violence, official unemployment continues to hover around 20%. Algeria is still mired in a housing crisis, and barriers for entry into the economy. In short, most of the grievances that were raised in the initial “bread riots” continue to plague the Algerian people.
As for Egypt, the next ruling government would do well to combat corruption and address barriers to entrepreneurship and investment. However, economic reform must be structured in a way that also provides reasonable and sustainable social services. Like Algeria at the time, Egypt faces a serious housing crisis and high debt service, and in addition is in bad need of land reform. The approach of previous successive governments in Egypt seems to have been to spend out of significant reform, continuing a program of high and poorly structured subsidies. During times of elections or unrest, the government will raise subsidies to appear favorably, essentially using the economy as a tool of its own self-interest, as opposed to in the benefit of the people it is pledged to serve.
The government has not been the only actor to use economic advantage to political ends. Poor development policy leaves a wider swathe of the population susceptible to populist opposition movements that may bring the promise of short-term benefits in exchange for votes. (Indeed, both the FJP and FIS engaged in similar strategies around elections time, decades apart.) Although data on the relationship between specifically terrorist recruitment and economic opportunity are circumstantial at best, a more equitable and sustainable economy will undoubtedly deepen the democratic processes that are needed to ensure both stability and good governance.
Fuzzy definitions of security only benefit insecurity: One of the most frightening aspects of the Algerian crisis in the 1990s was the prevailing sense of insecurity. This insecurity was fueled in part by the Algerian government’s negligence towards addressing legitimate security concerns, which is partly attributable to the commonality of tactics between state and terrorist operations. ((In “Regimes of (Un)truth,” published via the Middle East Research and Information Project, Paul Silverstein explains, “The tactics and appearances of both military and Islamist forces have been strikingly similar. Military personnel in urban areas, known popularly as “ninjas,” mask themselves in order to hide their identities and prevent reprisals. While presenting their actions as police (rather than military) procedures, their conduct does not comply with legal scrutiny. For instance, no “terrorist” has ever been publicly tried.”))
By trying to fight terror with its own game (so to speak) rather than mobilizing more clearly lawful investigations of concrete and legitimate security threats, the security apparatus in fact further destabilized the country. The Egyptian government, which must deal with the very real security threats presented by the proliferation of violent extremist groups, still has a tangible opportunity to face this challenge in a better manner. This would require employing a discourse that condemns these actions as they occur, engaging in targeted operations to prevent further violence, and holding perpetrators of such violence accountable in a court of law. It would be far more concerning scenario to see the continued representation of threats of violence as emerging from broad conspiratorial networks, as can be observed in the language of disembodied terror.
This axiom holds as much for civil society actors as it does for the state. The Muslim Brotherhood has adopted concerning rhetoric that capitalizes on recent acts of violence. At an event held at Georgetown University last month, Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery (spokesman for the FJP) warned of a turn in Egypt to an “Algerian or Syrian scenario.” His concern was not necessarily novel, but in the particular context the statement read as a veiled threat: if the Brotherhood’s wishes are not heeded, then a devolution into violence might be expected. Dardery’s was not the only statement of this sort. After the horrific clearing of the Raba’a camp, a reporter asked Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Beltagy about the violence in Sinai. Beltagy responded:
“We do not control the territory. But what is happening in Sinai, in retaliation for the coup, will stop at the exact moment Abdul-Fatah al-Sisi declares he has withdrawn this coup, restored the situation to its owners, and President [Morsi] reclaims his power.”
This rhetoric conflates the behavior of the state towards the Muslim Brotherhood with the actions of terrorist or other violent actors. Again, the Brotherhood has not been formally connected to any terrorist activities, but this kind of opportunism, using a dire security situation to try to promote their own advantage amounts to, quite basically, coercion. This position does no favors to the Egyptian people (particularly the low-level Brotherhood supporters that pay dearly for this attitude).
The international community must remain aware: In Algeria, despite the absence of modern telecommunications and the consequent sheer quantity of resources for citizen testimony and reporting, there was still clear evidence of state wrongdoing. The international community largely ignored this evidence, leading to a sense of abandonment on the ground and allegations that the Algerian political elite were working in the service of foreign governments. While the particulars of these allegations are not paralleled in Egypt (and actually, if anything, the current rhetoric holds the opposite: that it is the foreign powers and the Muslim Brotherhood who are allied), the international community would do well to remember its failure to support deeper democracy.
By lending credence to an authoritarian regime for the ostensible purpose of maintaining “stability,” world leaders will miss a very real chance to support both democratic development and stability. The idea that stability must come at the expense of civil liberties is simply false, and the consistent discussion of these two concepts as somehow opposed to each other does an incredible disservice to the people who are living without them. Analysts, reporters, scholars, and policymakers must be vigilant against perceiving a false dilemma between civil liberties and security: the people of Egypt and Algeria—as with all people—both can live and deserve to live in an environment that is democratic and secure. They need not, and should not, be expected to sacrifice one for the other.
Originally published at TIMEP.org: https://timep.org/commentary/analysis/what-can-egypt-learn-from-algeria/