Since the Egyptian military ousted democratically elected President Morsi on 3rd July, responding to growing public unrest about the nature and direction of his government, some observers of the region have drawn parallels with events in Algeria in the early 1990s that heralded that country’s long and traumatic civil war. In early 1992, an election in which an Algerian Islamist party, the Islamist Salvation Front (FIS) looked set to emerge victorious, was effectively annulled by the army after the first round. Excluded once more from political participation, Algerian Islamists felt there were no political avenues open to them, and violent Islamist rebel groups, which already had strong roots, burgeoned in strength. An internal armed conflict over nearly a decade in which as many as 200,000 died, ensued.
Whether or not the parallel between the two north African countries’ experiences is a reasonable one has been hotly contested in the past weeks (see ‘ What Algeria 1992 can and cannot teach us about Egypt 2013’ by Hicham Yezza and ‘Algeria: the real lessons for Egypt’ by Karima Bennoune in Open Democracy for two takes) but what is undeniable is that there are serious lessons from the Algerian experience around the importance of inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the next phase in Egypt’s tortured transition, which are currently being ignored by the SCAF.
Given the familiarity of the scenario that is emerging in Egypt, what is Algeria’s response? A rueful ‘we told you so’ from the only country in north Africa to remain pretty much untouched by the Arab Spring? A sense of vindication for le pouvoir’s long held maxim that religion and government must be kept separate, and that stability is to be held onto at almost any price? In fact the reaction seems to be nothing so simple.
For some, certainly, there is solidarity with the huge groundswell of support in Egypt, led by the Tamarod movement, for the Egyptian army having stepped in. For the Islamist groups in Algeria, there is a warning, ahead of the 2014 Presidential elections, about the need to organise and prepare properly for the eventuality that the regime does decide to allow genuine competition between political groups in the search for a successor for the ailing Bouteflika, who, though finally back in Algiers, appears to be on his knees, pleading to be allowed to retire this time around.
But the government’s sights are reportedly set beyond the next domestic elections in 2014, and focusing on Algeria’s strategic position in the region. Despite being a significant energy and security actor for partners in Africa, Europe and beyond, Algeria has never been able to rival nearby Egypt’s geopolitical reach. But with Algeria’s security star in the ascendancy, having played a pivotal intelligence role in support of the French intervention in Mali, and with experienced armed forces with arguably some of the best understanding of the terrorist networks that operate across its region (and are now high on European threat lists) an Egypt that looks set to remain unstable for a long time to come is perhaps no bad thing for the Algerian pouvoir. If Europe and the US need a dependable security partner in the region, with a powerful army, but not one that is running the country, then they need look no further than the same interlocutors that they have been engaging with in Algiers for the past decade, as long as they are willing to overlook awkward questions about democratic legitimacy. And chances are that given European leaders ongoing uncertainty about which horse to back in Egypt, they just might be willing to opt for the devil they know in Algeria.
Either way, if international pressure is a critical factor in either perpetuating or calling time on Bouteflika’s rentier regime in Algeria, then 2014 sadly seems to promise only more of the same for a country that is badly in need of change.
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