Summer Nazif, an Egyptian-Algerian engineering student at Cairo University, thought the international media’s countless comparisons between Egypt’s present crisis and Algeria in the 1990s were “absurd” acts of punditry, but that was before Egyptian security forces violently cracked down on supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday, leaving more than 600 people dead.
“When [Morsi supporters] exchanged fire with the police, that’s when I started comparing the two,” Nazif, 19, told Al Jazeera.
Nazif’s mother moved to Cairo from Algeria in the 1990s, escaping what Algerians now refer to as “the black decade”. Those 10 years were immediately preceded by Algeria’s 1991 elections, in which the North African nation’s Islamist party, the Front of Islamic Salvation (FIS), won the first round. As in Egypt, the elections were held after a series of mass demonstrations.
After learning the results of that first round, Algerian military leaders cancelled the elections altogether, prompting an armed, right-wing faction of FIS to embark on a decade-long civil war with national security forces that killed an estimated 60,000 people and stymied economic development in a country rich with oil reserves.
Nazif, who returned to Cairo last week after her yearly summer vacation in Algeria, described conversations she had about the situation in Egypt while she was away.
“A lot of people in Algeria are talking about Egypt – in the street, at family gatherings,” she said. “They are afraid that the things that happened there are happening again.” She said the few “educated people” she knows in Egypt who understand what happened in Algeria in the 1990s are also talking about the infamous “black decade” and its portents.
Nazif noted that unlike in Algeria, where the FIS never had a chance to make an impression on voters, Egyptians like her were largely disenchanted with the Brotherhood’s roughly one year in power.
“The biggest thing they added was Islam,” she said, noting that social and economic discontent persisted throughout the Morsi presidency. “They claimed they had a project. They didn’t.”
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But the similarities between the Algerian conflict and Egypt’s crisis are strong: The sectarian divide between Egypt’s Islamists and its military, both of which are vying for political power, mirrors the strife that brought on Algeria’s “black decade,” said Karim Emile Bitar, director of Paris-based international relations think-tank, the Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques (IRIS).
In both Algeria and Egypt, “we have similarities in terms of political heritage – a nationalist, authoritarian military-industrial complex leading the countries for the past 50-odd years” and Islamist groups whose political activity has been crushed by the military, said Bitar.
And in both cases, he added, nullifying elections inflamed long-running tensions between the military and believers in political Islam, leading to bloodshed. In Egypt’s case, it is unclear how long the current imbroglio will persist. Nazif and Bitar say Egyptians should have maintained the legitimacy of the polls to prevent the kind of violence that broke out on Wednesday.
“The idea [behind the Egypt-Algeria comparisons] is to heed the lessons of history,” Bitar said. “The best way to defeat Islamists is not to halt the electoral process. Authoritarian [military] rule only offers temporary relief to liberals and democrats. It does not answer the questions of Islamic radicalism.”
The day before Morsi was deposed by Egypt’s military, he made a public address in which he used the word “legitimacy”, alluding to his and the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral mandate, roughly 200 times.
His opponents mocked the speech, but it seems that many now believe abiding by the polls could have prevented the chaos that unfolded and that Egyptian Health Ministry officials said killed more than 600 Morsi supporters and security personnel during Wednesday’s clashes.
“Personally, my family supports the Brotherhood,” Nazif said. “Not because they support Islamist rule. They support electoral legitimacy. We believe we could have elected someone else later.”
Mohamed Soudan of Morsi’s Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party told Al Jazeera that not abiding by the outcome of Morsi’s election in 2012 and waiting for an opportunity to elect another president at the polls, was a major blow to “law in Egypt”.
As with Algeria’s FIS, Egypt’s Brotherhood will use the military’s deadly crackdown to build its “aura” of legitimacy, Bitar said. “Had the process not been interrupted, had Egyptians demanded early elections, that would have been a long-term defeat for political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood will use this claim to legitimacy for a long time,” he said.
“Morsi is no Salvador Allende,” Bitar added, referring to the first democratically elected Chilean president, overthrown in a military coup in 1973. “But this will allow the Brotherhood to create a new aura.”
In Algeria, “the fact that the [electoral] process was interrupted led to the radicalisation of some [FIS] fringes that became the Groupe Islamique Arme,” an armed group that would later team up with al-Qaeda and continue armed attacks into the present day.
As for Egypt, Bitar said, “I would not be surprised if radical fringes [of the Brotherhood] decide to go toward violence” now that they have no apparent political channels to challenge the military at their disposal.
The Brotherhood’s spokesman in Britain, Hany Eldeeb, said that although the Brotherhood has renounced violence, “Now [the military] is telling [Brotherhood members] there is no hope for them to be in power. Definitely you are provoking violence.”
Tunisia’s ‘Egypt scenario’
Nazif said Egyptians “want to skip through” any potential “black decade”. And other political entities are also using the Algeria-Egypt comparison as a cautionary tale.
Since Morsi’s ouster in Egypt, Tunisia’s Ennahda, another Islamist party that came to power in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab revolutions, has warned repeatedly against an Egypt-style coup.
Opposition parties withdrew from the National Constituent Assembly in Tunisia’s interim government after the July 25 murder of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi – the second such killing this year. His murder drove tens of thousands of people, upset with the administration’s management of social and economic issues, into the streets.
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Ennahda Vice President Walid Bennani told Al Jazeera its “opposition also still wants to repeat the Egyptian scenario”, but said that a coup was not in the works.
Although Tunisia does not have a politically significant military as in Algeria and Egypt, Bitar said “polarisation” between those who believe in political Islam and secularists is “also extremely intense there”.
“Some would like to replicate what happened in Egypt,” he said, echoing Bennani.
One of the groups that orchestrated Tunisia’s protests against the current government is called the Tamarod (“Rebel”) movement, just like the movement that orchestrated the protests that ultimately resulted in Morsi’s ouster.
“I think it would be a terrible mistake, although Ennahda and [party founder] Rached Ghannouchi also commit lots of mistakes,” Bitar said.
Tunisian activist Mouna Ben Halima told Al Jazeera her compatriots were protesting Ennahda’s “incompetence” with handling social and economic issues. Under the Ennahda-led government, Ben Halima noted, Tunisian authorities had jailed Amina Sboui, an activist with women’s rights group Femen, and rapper Weld el 15, essentially for dissidence and disrespecting the new administration’s moral sensibilities.
“Social and economic debates are perhaps more important than identity debates” between secularists and political religionists, Bitar added.
Follow Massoud Hayoun on Twitter: @mhayoun