An Islamist party wins a free and fair democratic election and then is ousted in a military coup, one tacitly encouraged by the country’s liberal and secular opposition, many of whom prefer a military dictatorship to a democracy run by religious conservatives. If this scenario sounds familiar it’s because we’ve seen it before.
In 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist political group, won the first round of Algeria’s first multiparty elections since the country gained independence in 1962. When polling predicted that the FIS would win an absolute majority in Algeria’s parliament in the second round of voting, the military suddenly stepped in and annulled the elections. The coup d’état radicalized the country’s Islamists and led to a decade long civil war that resulted in more than 100,000 deaths.
It may not be a perfect analogy, but it is difficult not to think about Algeria when looking at what’s going on in Egypt. After millions of protesters flooded the streets of cities across the country on Sunday, demanding the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the nation’s first democratically elected president, the Egyptian military issued a communiqué saying Morsi’s government had 48 hours to respond to the current upheaval before it steps in with “a road map of measures enforced under the military’s supervision.”
The statement by Egypt’s Supreme Military Council (SCAF) made it clear that “the armed forces will not be party to the circle of politics or ruling, and the military refuses to deviate from its assigned role in the original democratic vision that flows from the will of the people.” But if you believe that the same generals who, until two years ago actually ran the country, do not want to regain power, then I have a pyramid I’d like to sell you. The Muslim Brotherhood is by no means alone in seeing SCAF’s communiqué for exactly what it is: a military coup d’état.
Remarkably, SCAF’s statement was met with cheers from many in the fractious opposition movement, even those who still bear the scars from fighting against military rule in Egypt. As in Algeria, it appears that many Egyptian liberals have decided that military dictatorship (à la Jordan) would be better than a government run by the Muslim Brotherhood.
During the recent protests, some demonstrators openly chanted for the return of military rule. Yet for most, there was no need to be so obvious. The message conveyed by the demonstration was clear: if the military did not intervene in the crisis, the protesters would not let up.
Of course, such a scenario—prolonged, unrelenting demonstrations—is not really an option for Egypt, where the economy is already on the brink of total collapse. The country is in desperate need of billions of dollars in IMF loan guarantees, not a penny of which will be delivered until there is some measure of political stability.
What is now clear is that there can be no such stability under President Morsi. But neither can there be any kind of stability under the opposition, which is in such a state of disarray that it cannot conceivably be viewed by any outside force – not least, the IMF – as a serious, viable alternative to the current government. That leaves SCAF as the only force capable of stabilizing the country, which means that Egypt may soon return to its pre-Arab Spring status quo: an oppressive police state that knows how to keep the streets calm. The only difference, of course, is that it will presumably be General Abdul Fatah Khalil Al-Sisi maintaining order, rather than Hosni Mubarak, the country’s erstwhile strongman.
So a few years from now, when President-for-Life Al-Sisi is sworn into office, and the Muslim Brotherhood, radicalized by the belief that they were unlawfully thrown out of power, decide to reject politics and return to violence, we may see history repeating itself with equally devastating consequences.
Reza Aslan is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author most recently of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Follow him @RezaAslan