Telegraph of London August 21 2013
The generals are masters of Cairo and their foot soldiers are cannon fodder in the deserts of Sinai. The killing of 26 policemen near Egypt’s eastern frontier provides another vivid sign of how violence is taking hold across the Arab world’s most populous country.
But this incident also strikes an echo of the first stirrings of civil war in another Arab nation where the army seized power at the expense of radical Islamists. Two decades ago, the ambush and murder of policemen signalled the onset of armed revolt in Algeria. Often, busloads of officers were waylaid by gunmen and shot on the spot, which seems to be what happened in Egypt this week.
Before long, Algeria’s Islamist insurgents had graduated to attacking the army, planting bombs in the capital and, worst of all, carrying out night-time massacres in defenceless villages across the ”bled”, as the country’s coastal landscape is known.
When this singularly brutal civil war finally subsided in the early years of this century, perhaps 100,000 people had been killed. A shadowy cabal of generals, impossible to dislodge and known to Algerians as ”le pouvoir”, still pulled the strings of power. ”Once again,” reads a history of Algeria’s conflict, ”le pouvoir had exhibited its enduring dominance as it recaptured the instruments of authority through direct control of the state.”
The bloodshed began after Islamist party the Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of Algeria’s election in December 1991. Instead of allowing it to take power, the army mounted a coup in January 1992, cancelling the second round of elections and seizing control of the government. The Islamists, denied the chance to win office via the ballot box, decided that force was the only way.
The parallel between these tragic events in Algeria and Egypt’s recent experience is startling. For the Islamic Salvation Front, read the Muslim Brotherhood, and a pattern falls into place.
In Cairo on July 3, the army overthrew an elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood and assumed de facto power. On Sunday, the cabinet appointed by the generals debated whether to ban the Brotherhood and revive the prohibition that held sway until Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011.
If this step is taken, Egypt’s new rulers will have adopted the Algerian solution to the challenge of political Islam. This can be summed up as ”deny, ban and suppress”: namely, deny the Islamists power, even if they win a fair election; ban their parties, however popular they might be; and lock up their supporters. Hundreds of Brotherhood figures are behind bars in Egypt and the official death toll from the operation to clear the protest camps and break up demonstrations is nearing 1000.
If the regime now adopts the last piece of the Algerian recipe and restores the ban on the Brotherhood, the Islamists might feel compelled to take matters into their own hands, follow their Algerian counterparts and choose armed insurrection instead.
Fortunately, there are good reasons to believe this will be avoided. For all the obvious parallels, there are vital differences between events in Egypt and Algeria. The most striking is that Algeria’s Islamists were never allowed to take power. In Egypt, by contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood won both parliamentary and presidential elections – and Mohamed Mursi duly became Egypt’s president in June last year. No one stood in the way of the Brotherhood assuming the power granted by its election victories. The problem was Mursi’s lamentable performance in office. The key moment came last November when he issued a decree that effectively swept aside all legal restraints on his authority and, with one blow, repudiated the ideals of the revolution against dictatorship.
Incidentally, remember how the Brotherhood promised not to run for the presidency after Mubarak’s fall? What if it had kept this pledge? The first president of the new Egypt would have been, say, Ahmed Shafik, a hold-over from the old regime, or perhaps Amr Moussa, a former head of the Arab League. The new leader would probably have failed spectacularly, overwhelmed by crisis. What would have happened next? Millions of Egyptians would have implored the Brotherhood to accept power as the only alternative to army rule.
Instead, the Brotherhood broke its promise – and now Mursi is out and the generals are in. After decades of preparation for Mubarak’s fall, Mursi and his colleagues dug their own political graves. Algeria’s Islamists had the mantle of victimhood. Their Egyptian counterparts, by contrast, succumbed to hubris.
But the Brotherhood’s bedrock of popular support, constructed over decades, remains intact. Given time, it could recover. In essence, the Algeria option means excluding Islamists from politics, regardless of how many votes they might win. For Egypt’s rulers to ban the Brotherhood – which was capable of winning elections as recently as 2012 – would be the height of folly. Mursi fell victim to his own hubris. The generals must not do the same – for Algeria provides a dreadful warning.