Egyptian Eradicators, the Algerian Black Decade, and Salvador Allende

Despite the cacophony resulting from divergent opinions from Washington, Brussels, Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha, about the suspension of aid to Egypt, one consistent warning has been iterated to remind Egyptians that the current situation can only end badly: the Algerian black decade. The military coup d’état in Algeria in 1992 that prevented the electoral victory of the movement known as the Islamic Salvation Front (or FIS for the Front Islamique du Salut) sparked ten years of bloody civil war. Such warnings assume that the Egyptian military and its supporters will not risk the stability and well-being of their country to ensure the power of a few. This could prove to be a serious miscalculation. Warning the Egyptian military and its supporters that their actions could spiral out of control along the lines of what happened in Algeria may actually incentivize them to continue their course of action rather than change directions. 

Many have compared the anti-Islamist massacres being ruthlessly undertaken by the Egyptian security forces throughout the country to the bloody repression of the militants of the FIS by the Algerian military in 1992. Although comparisons are difficult to make given the unique characteristics and contexts of each country, the parallels warrant a discussion on how different actors may understand historical examples and how this interpretation may impact their next steps. In the case of Algeria, one perspective is that the military takeover was a fundamentally catastrophic event with negative consequences. When elections were canceled and the armed forces rounded up militants in mass arrest, the FIS went underground and–along with other more extremist jihadist groups–waged a guerrilla war throughout the 1990s against the security forces and citizens they considered secular, atheist, and anti-Islamic. A civil war of unbelievable savagery ensued, claiming more than 200,000 lives. The conflict left an indelible scar on the psyche of the population, which ultimately resigned itself to the return of the old status quo: an authoritarian system governed by an opaque elite comprising members of the military and their cronies in the business world; a political system characterized by widespread and endemic corruption that undermines economic development; a rubber stamp parliament that provides cover for the military; and tenuous rule of law with limited freedoms. Understood through this lens, the Algerian military coup had no positive consequences. It killed the aspirations of its population and plunged it into political apathy, as evidenced by the consistently low level of participation in various elections over the last two decades. There were no winners in the scenario.

There is another, more Machiavellian view that takes into consideration the interests of the ruling classes and their international supporters. This interpretation reads that the coup d’état staged by the military in Algeria was necessary in order to maintain a regional equilibrium that was very much favored by the European powers and the United States. The shady ties built between elites regarding the sale of oil and gas (as evidenced by the recent scandals that have erupted regarding kickbacks and bribes between international oil companies and members of the elites in North Africa), the extensive military and security cooperation, and political alliances were maintained to the benefit of both local elites and international benefactors. Sadly, the plan seems to have worked. The Islamist anti-establishment groups were defeated, the old system was saved, and the appearance of democracy maintained thanks to a president such as Abdelaziz Bouteflika who portrayed himself as the representative of the democratic aspirations of the ‘good, Muslim, secularist, modern’ parts of society. The desired order, led by the deep state’s pro-Western elite, was restored and continues to reign in Algeria. Interpreted this way, there are winners and losers, and the Egyptian military is willing to bet that it and the holdovers of the Mubarak era under which it thrived will come out on top.

This model is not limited to the Middle East either; Chile’s experience with a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet to oust the elected socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973 looks much like the recent moves of Egyptian General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  This was an overthrow of the leftist, anti-establishment elite (widely perceived as anti-Western) and marked the return of pro-Western elites to power.  Just as the Egyptian military is doing now, Pinochet’s men claimed to act on behalf of the majority of the population and proceeded to wipe out the leftist opposition. The brutal methods worked. Fifteen years later, when power was returned to a civilian government, it was to Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat and pro-Western member of the bourgeoisie elite.

It remains to be seen if Egypt will in fact follow an Algeria or Chile model, but the parallels with both scenarios and the events of the last few weeks are striking.  While sounding the warning bell may seem a prudent measure, those who cite the Algerian scenario for Egypt might play precisely the cords that the military and their supporters want to hear. It is possible that the military in Egypt may not succeed in establishing its control over the country and may face further obstacles in consolidating its power.  Nevertheless, it is clear the Egyptian military is thinking along the more Machiavellian framework when it revisits the Algerian example. And, why not, the Chilean as well.

Related Experts: Karim Mezran

Image: 1973, President Salvador Allende of Chile was overthrown in a military coup d’etat.