Will Egypt Slide into Civil War? Algeria Offers Some Clues

Egyptian security forces detain supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi as they clear a sit-in camp set up near Cairo University on August 14 Photograph by Mohammed Asad/AP Images

Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was in Egypt recently. In a meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated director of a business association, she mentioned her visits to another North African state—Algeria, where some 200,000 died in a decade-long civil war between Islamists and the military-backed government, a war that ended in 2002. The businessman was transfixed, says Chayes, and pressed her for all that she knew about that bloody episode in Algerian history.

The Algerian civil war looms large in the background as the struggle in Egypt between the armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood intensifies. On Wednesday, Aug. 14, Egyptian police and soldiers broke up the Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo and elsewhere, killing more than 150 protesters. A state of emergency has been declared. No one knows what comes next.

The Algerian experience may provide some clues. In 1991, an Islamic party, the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS), won the first round of an election the military government had reluctantly agreed to, after wide popular protests. There was no second round. The army suspended the electoral process, assumed direct rule, and an armed branch of the FIS launched a guerrilla war. Massacres and arbitrary detention ensared noncombatants, and the economy ground to a halt. The military government ultimately prevailed as the exhausted combatants reached a truce. “The country was unbelievably traumatized,” says Chayes. Even today, she adds, most Algerians over the age of 20 walk around “looking as if they had been poleaxed.” Algeria has had no Arab Spring: It seems too shell-shocked to try anything so risky.

A similar fate could await Egypt if the army overplays its hand. The Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago, but it could resort to armed resistance if it feels its existence is threatened. The Jihadi Salafists—super-strict Muslims who advocate jihad—are already armed. Egyptian rebels of all stripes could obtain training and weapons in Libya. It’s significant that provincial governors appointed by the Egyptian military have started to seal the border with Libya.

Chayes says a complicated dynamic between the Brotherhood and the military is being played out. Some within the Brotherhood may see an interest in playing the martyr, and some in the army may see an interest in radicalizing the Brotherhood and driving its members to armed resistance: Instead of battling its opponents in the political process, the army would be on more familiar ground battling an insurrection. The choice between the Islamist elements in Egypt and secular society would be starker than ever as a result.

Some important differences between Egypt and Algeria make it probable that Egypt will not experience the same kind of civil war that bloodied Algeria. In Algeria the people never had their election. In Egypt the people got their election and a year later a sizable part of the population rejected the outcome. The Egyptians have also not repudiated the army. Ordinary citizens revolted out of rage over the crony capitalism spawned by former President Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal. In Algeria, resentment of the army went much deeper.

That doesn’t mean violence in Egypt will disappear. Chayes figures some sort of insurgency is likely. The army stopped an insurgency in the 1990s from turning into civil war. Egypt faces miserable choices: The hope is that it pursues a course that inflicts the least misery on its people.

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