Quite tragically, Egypt now seems to be following the same bloody path as Algeria in the 1990s. As I forewarned in an article almost two years ago,[i] Egypt's military, like Algeria's in 1992, has now succeeded in splitting the opposition to the old authoritarian regime, maneuvering the ambitious, self-confident, and most important component of the mass Islamist movement into direct armed confrontation with the police and military and forcing most secular opponents to choose between fleeting hopes for a sustained republican regime or military protection against a potential Islamist theocracy. Among others, longtime Middle East observers Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn recently noted this repeated dynamic between the two countries[ii] and Algerian commentators have done the same.[iii] While details obviously differ, the broad patterns are strikingly similar.
In Algeria, a brief liberalization of the press, electoral openings for new political parties and space for newly independent organizations (especially trade unions) from 1989 to 1991 followed important labor strikes, huge street demonstrations and bloody repression in late 1988 Algiers, just as in Cairo in early 2011. In both countries, the period of political liberalization was only a façade to hide temporarily the reality of continuing military control.
In Algeria, an Islamist populist party, the FIS, gained substantial victories in 1990 municipal elections and a first-round landslide in legislative polls in December 1991. At this point, the military stepped in, cancelling the second round and setting up an openly military-dominated regime. Secular competitors with the Islamists then split between those insisting that elections proceed, no matter what, in order to save the young experiment in liberal democracy versus those who opposed that experiment in principle allied with those fearing a triumphalist Islamism that would move toward an authoritarian regime of its own. This division caused bitter recriminations within the Algerian liberal and radical left, just as it does today in Egypt.
Meanwhile, a growing momentum of armed confrontations and state repression, beginning even before the 1991 balloting, escalated dramatically into nearly a decade of full-scale urban and rural guerrilla civil war between the military and Islamist groups, with civilians caught in the crossfire. Up to 200,000 Algerians died in the conflict, with thousands more wounded and disappeared. In addition to village massacres, Islamists assassinated secular women, teachers, professionals and journalists and kidnapped women of various ages for sexual enslavement in rural guerrilla camps. The military, in turn, fearful of strong and persistent Islamist resistance, carried out massacres and widespread prisoner tortures of its own.
While the regime eventually offered truces and amnesty to Islamist guerrillas, providing reintegration into civilian society, a small Islamist minority, now known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb (AQIM), continued hostilities to the present from its remote mountain and desert bases. The military, in turn, has assured its own choice for successive presidential terms as well as its own continued looting of huge petrodollar state income and other sources of lucrative corruption. Though incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika seemed likely to be advanced again for a fourth term in 2014, his massive stroke a few months ago no doubt precludes that scenario. Nevertheless, rival factions within the military regime, as before, will surely find a new compromise figure to impose on an increasingly-alienated Algerian electorate, without concern for continually deteriorating conditions of daily life for most or for long-time grassroots demands for political accountability.
Whether Egyptian Islamists can now produce and sustain a strong guerrilla resistance movement in a terrain quite different from that in Algeria is still to be seen. Algerian Islamists had the benefit of remote mountain bases and often local villagers' support for their actions. Despite great frustrations over the past year, Egypt's Islamists still no doubt have substantial support among millions of impoverished Egyptians, now radicalized by the military coup. As well, armed Islamist resistance and aggression in other parts of the Arab world, including Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, demonstrate the potential for sustained Islamist guerrilla effectiveness in urban and rural contexts both.
As the military vs. Islamist conflict develops its tragic trajectory in Egypt, secular liberals and radicals who despise both sides will be caught in the middle, as in Algeria, and will surely be left on the sidelines for a long time once the likely guerrilla war has ended.
What began as a "leaderless revolution" in 2011 to depose Mubarak and, as some hoped, the whole ancien régime as the culmination of popular grassroots activism in diverse social contexts[iv] was coopted by far better organized Islamists and now the Egyptian military. Hopefully, the once-experienced exhilaration of successful direct action and temporarily freer space will sustain the hopes and now more sophisticated organizing energies of large numbers of the younger generation whose courageous determination in 2011 provided such inspiration in the Middle East and North Africa especially, but also throughout the world. In the meantime, it is up to us to work against oppression in our own countries and toward the demise of the terrorizing capitalist world system that encourages both military regimes and authoritarian populisms, theocratic or otherwise, that are seen as a last chance by desperately poor and powerless billions.
David Porter is a SUNY professor emeritus of political science and history and author of Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria, published in 2011 by AK Press.