Washington, DC – “They are falling into the trap,” he said. “The Islamists will soon win their election, and they will come to power. But this will be their undoing. Soon the people will see that they are no more capable of solving the country’s problems than we were; before long, the public will blame the Islamists for their problems, rather than us. Then you will see what will happen: the people will turn on them, and turn again to us.”
My friend might well have been an Egyptian Army officer or a member of the ancien regime, speaking before the parliamentary elections of November 2011, in which the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al-Nour party won a majority of seats. Or he might well have been speaking just days ago, before the presidential run-off election – won by the Freedom and Justice party’s Mohamed Morsi.
He might have been speaking about the Egyptian elections, but he was not. My friend, a very junior Algerian government official and a member of the National Liberation Front (FLN) that has ruled Algeria with an iron hand since independence in 1962, was speaking in the summer of 1991, as Algeria was fitfully preparing for the first truly free and fair national elections in its history.
But my friend’s voice lacked the ring of true conviction. Even as he spoke, the FLN government and the Algerian Army that controlled it were working feverishly to gerrymander voting districts and to otherwise create electoral impediments to the rise of the Islamist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which had swept local council elections the previous year, and would again win overwhelmingly in the first round of national parliamentary elections that December.
A genuine democratic tide
We all know what happened next: Convinced that it had seen enough of democracy, and never willing to subordinate itself to an Islamist government in the first place, the Algerian army stepped in to shut down the electoral process and arrest the leadership of the FIS. The civil war that followed produced such mass ferocity, such pitiless violence, that out of decency we were forced to avert our eyes, even now.
What we now see being played out in Egypt, for all the differences, is eerily reminiscent of what I saw at close hand in Algeria just over 20 years ago. Like the Algerian army before it, the Egyptian military has never had any intention of subordinating itself or making itself accountable to a genuinely democratic government – still less one dominated by the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis. And like the FLN regime before them, the power behind Mubarak-era repression has found that subtle political manipulation and intimidation is not sufficient to control a genuine democratic tide once unleashed.
“Charges from oppositionists that [SCAF] has launched a coup over the past weekend actually come 16 months late… Hosni Mubarak was not removed by revolutionaries; he was removed by his generals.“
By leveraging Mubarak’s Constitutional Court to dissolve an elected parliament, and by issuing a decree arrogating sweeping new powers to itself and effectively neutering the presidency, while simultaneously hijacking the process to create a new constitution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) seized control of Egyptian political life last weekend in a manner hardly less thorough than that which we saw in Algiers in January 1992.
Charges from opposition figures that the Egyptian army launched a coup last weekend actually come 16 months late. Whatever the democratic opposition may have thought, theirs was never a genuine revolution. Hosni Mubarak was not removed by revolutionaries; he was removed by his generals. And while Field Marshal Tantawi and the rest of the Supreme Council may have exhibited some considerable ambivalence and indecision along the way in determining how to channel democratic reform to ensure it did not threaten them or their interests, the desired end, in their minds, has never been in doubt.
Ironically, having temporarily eliminated the short-term risks to their interests inherent in a genuine democratic process, they may simultaneously have multiplied the long-term risk of genuine revolution, and of their ultimate demise. The generals are counting, in effect, on Egyptians to act like Egyptians, and not like Algerians. They may be right, for now, in doing so.
An uphill climb
Notwithstanding the renewed energy of large numbers of protesters in Tahrir Square, some chanting: “If they want it to be Syria, we’ll give them Libya”, a majority of Egyptians seem to have opted for renewed stability and security, rather than the evanescent dream of freedom and political reform. Their renewed complacency is further encouraged by deep political divisions.
Though having taken decisive action, the generals cannot rest easily. In opting for outright confrontation over co-option and manipulation, they run a serious risk of uniting the Islamist and liberal-secularist wings of the opposition, particularly if the Muslim Brotherhood are clever enough to moderate their social agenda and provide credible assurances of significant secularist and minority representation in a reconstituted Constituent Assembly.
Although Morsi is already taking steps towards this end, he has an uphill climb. He seems to have temporarily dropped the word Islam from his political vocabulary, but he has shown in the past that, when pressed, it is impossible for him to do anything but uphold the primacy of God’s law over man’s. Christians and secularists will not be reassured. And few will forget that, once having opted to maximise their representation in parliament, the Islamists have used their clout to seize control of the now-moribund Constituent Assembly.
Having belatedly backed the democratic transition in Egypt, the Obama administration is mortified by the turn of events at the Constitutional Court. Cries have immediately gone up in Congress to withhold this year’s allotment of $1.3bn in military aid. But their action, when it comes, will prove symbolic, and serve only to remove their fingerprints from what comes next. Faced with the choice between continued US assistance and an Islamist-dominated government, the generals will have little trouble in deciding.
Yes, we can hear the echoes of Algiers in the shouts now emanating from Tahrir Square. Political chaos and a good bit of violence are no doubt in store. But differences of time, place, circumstance and culture probably mean that the brutal repression which required eight years and the slaughter of perhaps 200,000 people on the southwest edge of the Mediterranean will be achieved at far less cost along the banks of the Nile. Democratic reform will eventually come to Egypt, but only when those who want to achieve it are prepared to act wisely, and in concert.
Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.