Sentences that start, “History teaches us that…” usually contain bad history and worse logic. Nonetheless, Egypt makes me think with foreboding of Algeria.
The Algerian civil war
The Algerian civil war lasted from 1992 to 2003. About 150,000 people were killed. In its worst phase in 1997 it degenerated into a series of attacks on civilians, mainly perpetrated by the anti-government Armed Islamic Group (known in much of the western media by its French acronym of GIA), which openly claimed responsibility for them, but with numerous more clandestine attacks on civilians by government security forces.
In the GIA attacks, the cruelty and brutality is still hard to credit or even discuss. Whole villages and neighbourhoods were targeted, especially ones near Algiers. Makeshift weapons were used such as mattocks and shovels as well as guns and knives. People were literally hacked to pieces and disembowelled. Children were not left out and young women were kidnapped for sexual slavery.
Quite frequently, government forces stationed nearby – sometimes no more than a few hundred metres away - made no attempt to repel the attack or help the victims. There was a reason for that, and it was not just laziness or fear.
The war started on the back of elections that the power holders in Algeria could not let run their course, which is reason #1 for thinking about it when viewing events in Egypt with its record of fixed elections. The army interrupted elections in January 1992, backed by every outside power with a serious stake in Algeria. It was driven, of course, by fear of the dreaded Islamists (reason #2).
The post-Independence regime in Algeria was widely discredited within the country throughout the 1980s (reason #3). In riots in 1988, security forces killed hundreds of people. But after its iron response on the streets the government was prepared to offer democratic flexibility. Political parties could be formed, among them the Islamic Salvation Front (or FIS in western media coverage), which took more than half the vote in local elections in 1990.
The government tightened election law in 1991 to disadvantage the FIS and pressed ahead for national elections. In December, the FIS got very nearly half the votes cast. The following month, the army stepped in. It cancelled the elections, arrested thousands of FIS activists (at least 5,000 and maybe as many as 30,000), replaced the President and suspended political rights and freedoms.
On the basis that anything and anyone were better than the Islamists, the army was supported from outside by the US, the European powers that mattered and most Arab states.
descent into chaos
War started within a couple of months. The GIA was formed in 1993 by veterans from the war in Afghanistan. It was a breakaway group from the FIS’s armed wing. It targeted anybody who supported the government and was particularly venomous towards foreigners whom it attempted systematically to drive out of the country. But it reserved much of its most extreme violence for the FIS and its supporters.
The 1997 massacres were largely in villages and neighbourhoods that had voted particularly strongly for the FIS in December 1991. That is why the government’s forces, on those occasions when they could have intervened to save lives, did not.
The anti-civilian strategy of the GIA sickened some of its fighters who in 1998 broke away and formed the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (usually referenced as the GSCP). This group focused its attacks on army, police and intelligence (though it was often accused by its opponents of having been formed by Algerian intelligence).
AL-Qaeda’s Lineage in the Maghreb
The GSCP continued to fight long after the FIS-related groups negotiated an end to violence with the new Algerian government in 1999 and 2000. Many GIA fighters took advantage of an amnesty at the same time.
In 2006, the GSCP linked itself to the al-Qaeda network and in January 2007 announced it had changed its name to be the al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb.
Today, it fights on. People still die for reasons that can be traced back to the army’s externally backed side-lining of democracy almost 20 years ago.
If that is not a lesson, then at least it is an example…
…of what happens when outsiders link up with anti-democratic forces in a “we know best” display of force and power.
It is the temptation for all external powers of any weight or scale to avoid in the case of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and wherever else the surge of popular revulsion at existing power holders takes hold and links with a urgent wish for more responsive and responsible government.
President Mubarak has said he will step down only not right now. In Yemen, President Saleh has said he will step down only not right now. “Orderly transition” is the call of the day in Washington and London.
It sounds so reasonable and moderate. But if outsiders say what constitutes “orderly”, if they try to join in to fix the terms of that transition according to their interests, and even if their interests coincide with those of a few articulate internal power holders who will be damaged by a transition of any kind, orderly or not – if outsiders fall for that temptation, the result may well be catastrophic.
Where there is temptation, remember Algeria. And government leaders, EU officials, all – remember that actively or through silence, your predecessors all backed the Algerian army in 1992.
Deep, well-established and extraordinarily well-organised opposition movements in Egypt (plural – movements) are the only possible source of a future for Egypt that is both peaceful and democratic. They are neither dominated nor, apparently, led by the Muslim Brotherhood but the Brothers do participate.
As they make headway they will need support and should receive it. But that support should be offered in a spirit of humility, shaped by recognition that when it comes to democracy in the Middle East, outside powers have persistently got it wrong.