How Egypt’s Turmoil Echoes Algeria’s Bloody Civil War

By Vivienne Walt


Millions of voters elected an Islamic political party to run the country, but the military stepped in, forced out the winners of the election and handpicked a group of politicians in their place. No, this is not Egypt in 2013. It was Algeria in 1992. And in the eyes of some, the bloodshed that followed that fateful Algerian decision 21 years ago offers sobering lessons for the generals in Cairo, who forcibly removed President Mohamed Morsi from office on Wednesday, one year after he’d won a democratic election, igniting violent street fighting between members of his Muslim Brotherhood and the massed ranks of protesters that had pushed for his ouster. “There is indeed a similarity,” Faycal Metaoui, a political columnist for Algeria’s al-Watan newspaper, told TIME on Sunday, adding that Algerians had been gripped by the news from Egypt playing on satellite networks all week. “In both countries, the army arrested a political process involving Islamists.”

The history of the two desert countries along North Africa’s Mediterranean coast has many differences, of course. Algerians fought a brutal war against French colonial rule, which ended with independence in 1962. As the victors, the main revolutionary movement — the National Liberation Front or FLN — has dominated political power ever since. Egypt emerged from underneath Britain’s suzerainty decades earlier and by the 1950s was in the midst of its own revolution, having deposed the country’s King and installed one of the coup leaders, the populist military man Gamal Abdel Nasser, as President.

Yet for all the divergences, Algeria’s more recent conflict offers some chilling parallels, and began when the Algerian constitution was amended to allow political parties other than the FLN to contest elections — not unlike the tumultuous political scramble that has played out in Egypt during the past two years. In December 1991, an Algerian political party called the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, which had formed just two years earlier with a platform based on the Muslim faith, swept the first round of parliamentary elections and looked certain to clinch an all-out majority in the second round weeks later. The second vote never took place, however. In between, Algeria’s generals stepped in, dissolved Parliament and banned the popular FIS — a crucial difference from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party has held sway for the past year and will likely be allowed to contest elections again soon.

That move in 1992 sparked eight years of brutal civil war in Algeria. With Islamic politics banned, a militant insurgency quickly formed, led by the Armed Islamic Group — the forerunner to today’s al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose affiliated militias seized a huge swath of neighboring Mali last year. About 200,000 Algerians are believed to have been killed in the 1990s war, many of them in horrific massacres, as the Islamist groups split into different factions, some intensely militant, with killings both among themselves and against the military; foreigners were also targets for assassination, and as Westerners fled en masse, Algeria’s economy plummeted. The exhausted foes finally called a truce in 1999 under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who still rules Algeria. Read more…

As published by Time on July 8, 2013.


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