Comparisons between Algeria and Egypt have been all the rage recently. A whole number of interesting pieces about the worrisome potential similarities (and the seemingly reassuring dissimilarities) have been written. Amongst these the most insightful ones I read were Hicham Yezza on Open Democracy and William Lawrence on Fikra Forum. Of course, as Lawrence puts it, stating the obvious, “Egypt is not Algeria,” yet at least superficial similarities between the two military-led putsches against an electoral majority abound and make a closer look into them worthwhile.
Following a suggestion by Shadi Hamid on Twitter, I thus read Michael Willis‘ history of events in Algeria until 1996 entitled The Islamist Challenge in Algeria – A Political History. Willis starts out his book, based on his Ph.D. thesis, with a history of political Islam – or Islam used for political means however you prefer – in the region of what is today Algeria. The difference between the traditional Sufi-inspired variety of Islam in the region and the reformist Islam essentially imported from the Gulf and Egypt he highlights is very interesting, especially in light of its urban (reformist) vs rural (traditional) component, if maybe little relevant outside the Maghreb. Following a discussion of (the regionally traditional) Islam as a tool in resistance against the French in the 19th century, he moves on to a discussion of a reformist Islam as a mainly cultural tool of national affirmation in the early 20th century. This movement during the Algerian war of independence is essentially incorporated into the FLN (Front de libération nationale).
Political Islam as an independent movement comes to the forefront once again in the 1980s then when the FLN-regime following the death of President Houari Boumedienne and in light of economic stagnation and rising unemployment was faced with wide-spread societal opposition (also from Feminist and Berber groups). The emergence of political Islam as an actor in political debate in for example the passing of a more restrictive Family Code in 1984, was paralleled by a minority of its adherents attempts at a ultimately defeated violent campaign against the state led by Mustapha Bouyali‘s MAIA (Mouvement algérien islamique armé).
Some of Algeria’s traditional Islamist leaders then went on to found the FIS (Front islamique du salut) to seize upon a thaw of the regime’s authoritarian mode of governance in the wake of massive demonstrations in 1988. In a clear parallel to the movements of the Arab Spring, these demonstrations were not predominantly made up or led by figures representing political Islam yet they were thrown into a leadership position thanks to their discipline and organisation in the face of a disparate if not to say chaotic mass movement.
The Algerian President at the time, Chadli Bendjedid, positioned himself in favour of a further opening of the political system allowing competitive elections first at the local level in 1990 and then nationally in 1991. Willis seems undecided as to his motives, which might have simply been a belief in the need for more democracy, but – this is the cynic in me talking – more likely was a reflection of him trying to establish himself as an independent power broker between the traditional ruling party, the FLN, and the new force in the field, the FIS. Chadli also seems to have underestimated the electoral appeal of the FIS, which not only swept the local elections in 1990, but also the first round of national elections in 1991, almost winning an absolute majority of seats in the first round alone.
An interesting aspect, interspersed in between the local elections dominated by the FIS and the national elections in December 1991, is that the national Assembly introduced a electoral voting reform in the Summer of 1990, with the FLN majority essentially trying to gerrymander itself to victory. The FIS called a general strike against this clearly anti-democratic attempt, yet it failed to mobilize a majority of working Algerians in support of this strike. It did manage to incite important crowds to take part in demonstrations, which became increasingly violent. This, of course, points to another interesting parallel with the Arab Spring, these being the bifurcation of society and especially the attractiveness of political Islam – or alternatively anybody who positions himself against the state as recent events in Egypt and the Tunisian interior have shown – as an alternative for those de facto excluded from the relative prosperity offered to a select few by an over-regulated economic system.
The Algerian military putsches itself into power in early 1991 then, forcing Chadli to resign and installing a civilian President, Mohamed Boudiaf, at the head of a council also including the actual strongman of the new regime, Khaled Nezzar, as its Defense Minister. In an interesting aside for Egypt, Boudiaf, untainted by much what had gone on in the past due to his exile, assumed a much more prominent role in trying to reignite the Algerian economy and incorporating the FIS’ voters back into society’s fold than most had presumed. Adly Mansour has so far shown little signs assuming such a role and in any case Boudiaf might have paid for his (semi-)independence with his life as he was assassinated soon after in uncertain circumstances.
Algeria descended into a civil war of course with anywhere from 60 to 150 thousand victims. Willis’ book – for no fault of his – ends a bit disappointingly early in 1996 and thus tells us little about the end to this slaughter. Yet, his portrayal of its beginnings and the vain attempts to end it early on remain insightful. Maybe the most important lesson for Egypt is that the FIS was essentially beheaded by the Algerian security forces, its leadership in prison or in exile, which served the radicalization of those activists not – yet – in prison. Resistance or insurrectionist groups thus multiplied and were essentially incontrollable by any single entity. Notably, the FIS never had any control over the most important of these groups, the GIA (Groupe islamique armé).
The danger for Egypt and its new government might thus not be that it cannot effectively get rid – les liquider ou les emprisonner tous (Le Monde)– of the cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood, what instead arguably poses the greatest threat to the country is what happens afterwards. Will the Egyptian military create the very Hydra it claims to be fighting? It is at this point that I side most with Lawrence’s aforementioned piece which argues that it is essentially the military’s behavior from here on out that matters most.
The Islamist Challenge in Algeria provides an interesting insight into the past of political Islam in Algeria, while seemingly offering some pertinent lessons for the countries of the Arab Spring. Rashid al-Ghannushi the Tunisian governmental Ennahda party’s President for one was in Algeria and closely associated with the leadership of the FIS at the time, arguably his more moderate and inclusive leadership, which has allowed Tunisia to remain the best hope for democracy in the region still standing, is also due to the lessons he drew from his Algerian comrades’ experience. Something that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are learning in a disgustingly bloody way now.