As rival parties contend for power in Egypt and as civil war overtakes Syria, it is worth remembering what happened in Algeria two decades ago.
In 1991, an Islamist party led after the first round of elections, prompting the government to cancel additional elections and to ban the Islamist party. When the military took over the government, it cracked down on Islamic groups, jailing thousands of people in sparking a civil war that lasted more than a decade and cost as many as 200,000 lives. It was a vicious war characterized by mass beheadings and the massacres of entire villages. Eventually, the Islamic groups gave up their struggle.
In Egypt a struggle is under way between the military and Islamic factions led by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate has won election as president. The military has not banned the Islamists, but before results of the election were announced the military’s ruling council stripped the presidency of much of its power and dissolved the new parliament, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is unclear whether the court will act to prevent the military from disbanding the parliament, although on Tuesday the court suspended the power of military police and intelligence officers to arrest civilians.
The new president, Mohammed Morsi, will have to feel his way toward the establishment of a democracy in Egypt. Egyptians who favored a secular government worried that Morsi would seek to impose Islamic rule. Meanwhile, the military, which controls vast segments of the nation’s economy, is not about to relinquish its hold on wealth-producing enterprises or the privileged position it occupied under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
The Algeria example shows what can happen when a privileged group thwarts democracy in order to protect itself. Governments throughout the region are right to worry about the rise of rigid, intolerant, tyrannical Islamic regimes, as in Iran. But if they stifle democracy by blocking the popular choice — even if that choice is Islamist — then they may reap the whirlwind.
In Egypt, the military has been playing a more subtle game than in it did in Algeria. Military leaders were apparently willing to sacrifice one of their own, Mubarak, in order to protect themselves for now. They could afford to give ground because the uprising against Mubarak was not mainly Islamist. Rather, it was led by secular urbanites with smart phones. When Mubarak was gone, however, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that was organized sufficiently to take advantage of the political opening.
The evolution of democracy is about power and about forcing narrow elites to share power. It may happen relatively peacefully or with much spilling of blood. In Egypt it has been relatively peaceful, so far. In Syria, the regime of Bashar Assad has mounted a brutal crackdown against his opposition, with thousands killed and opposition growing stronger and more sophisticated.
Even in the United States, the evolution of democracy was bloody. Our own Civil War was not just about the freeing of slaves; it was also about freeing the government from the control of a narrow elite of Southern planters.
There is no easy route to democracy, no magic formula that forces those with power to decide that, for the larger good, they ought to sacrifice their own power and wealth. American intelligence officers are apparently at work on the Turkish-Syria border trying to guide aid to the appropriate insurgent groups inside Syria. No doubt the Obama administration remembers the 1980s when U.S. intelligence operatives funneled billions in aid to freedom fighters in Afghanistan, including Islamist radicals who later turned their wrath against us — freedom fighters such as Osama bin Laden.
These movements are out of our hands, but the United States can still play a role in helping to widen the arena of democracy in all of these countries. We have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan that it isn’t so easy. But we have learned in Libya, as well as in the former Yugoslavia, that our help can be decisive.MORE IN Editorials
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