Egypt's Algerian Moment

Did Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi just set Cairo on the path to its own "black decade"?

Despite the roughly 1,000 miles of Libyan desert that lie between them, Algeria and Egypt have never seemed as close as they do now. When Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi forcibly removed President Mohamed Morsy from office in early July, a few far-sighted observers wondered if Egypt's military was about to repeat the tragic Algerian mistake that set off a decade of civil war in 1992. Events over the last week underscore the brutal similarities -- but it is far from clear that either tragedy was the result of mere miscalculation. Instead, then and now, the tragedies have been largely willed.

After a great spasm of popular revolts shook Algeria in 1988, the government -- controlled by the country's army and the socialist National Liberation Front (FLN) since independence in 1962 -- undertook a series of civil and political reforms. A new constitution in 1989 unshackled the press and political system, allowing Islamist as well as secular parties to speak freely and run for political office. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a motley collection of both moderate and militant Islamist movements, rode this wave of liberalization to victory in a series of municipal and provincial elections in 1990.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the generals found themselves at a crossroads: Given the surging strength of the FIS, should they proceed with national elections or simply deep-six the experiment in democracy? In the end, they did both. Despite deep misgivings on the part of the army and many secular parties, Algerians streamed to the urns in December 1991 for the first round of parliamentary elections. The results confirmed the strength of the FIS and left the army, the FLN, and most secular Algerians deflated. The Islamists won 188 of 231 seats, while the FLN was left with the electoral crumbs -- a mere 15 seats.

Just days before the second round of voting was scheduled to take place in mid-January, the military and its civilian intelligence appendages -- known as le pouvoir, power, or deep state -- forced the resignation of democratically elected President Chadli Benjedid, who had announced he was willing to work with an FIS-led government, and scrapped the elections. Le pouvoir, meanwhile, began to arrest those FIS leaders who had not already fled or gone underground. While the generals assured Algerians that they would return power to a civilian government as soon as stability was reestablished, their soldiers were constructing concentration camps for thousands of suspected Islamic militants in the Sahara. In effect, they practiced the very same counterinsurgency methods the French used against them during the bloody war of independence between 1954 and 1962 -- an irony not lost on historians.

Nonetheless, both inside and outside Algeria, many felt an uncomfortable sense of relief. Secular Algerians -- mostly urban, educated, and francophone -- worried that if the second round of voting took place in January, they would face the prospect of life under a regime that practiced what U.S. diplomat Edward Djerejian would fatefully term "one man, one vote, one time." The FIS, for its part, did little to dispel the seculars' fears; Ali Belhaj, leader of the FIS's radical wing, declared in 1992: "When we are in power, there will be no more elections because God will be ruling."

The extremity of Belhaj's words easily drowned out the conciliatory pronouncements made by more moderate FIS leaders -- like Abbasi Madani, who insisted that "pluralism is a guarantee of the cultural wealth and diversity needed for development" -- and set off alarm bells in Paris and Washington. While the French worried about the prospect of an Islamist government running the affairs of a country with which it had such complex historical and economic ties, Americans feared the implications that these changes would have for Israel's security and saw the Algerian military as more sympathetic to their regional ambitions. 

As a result, the international response was at least implicitly sympathetic to the Algerian military, with French President François Mitterrand going farther and supporting the coup outright. His prime minister, Alain Juppe, likewise cast it as a blow against terrorism. While the military's actions raised serious philosophical issues about democracy and its limitations, few thought this was the time or place to debate them -- all the more so as the first waves of bloodletting crested with a series of civilian massacres carried out by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a militant organization created by members of the FIS and staffed with legions of disaffected and unemployed youths.

In the wake of the subsequent assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf -- perhaps ordered by the military, unhappy with the president's anti-corruption policy -- the generals declared a state of emergency and waged a merciless campaign to crush the Islamist opposition. The rest of the decade, during which more than 100,000 civilians were killed and countless others were maimed or raped, was consumed by civil war. Most historians have rightly been harsh on both sides, and many view the military's decision to crack down on the FIS as tragic blunder. Ray Takeyh, a former U.S. State Department official and current fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, described it as one "of the greatest miscalculations in modern Algerian history."

But these assessments beg crucial questions. Most obviously, as many observers are now wondering about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, what if the greater miscalculation belonged to the FIS? Put another way, what if scuttling the election was not a miscalculation on the part of le pouvoir, but a deliberate decision to invite open conflict in which it could eviscerate its Islamist opponents? Of course, the generals may well have been surprised by the radicalization and tenacity of the armed Islamist groups, and how the counterinsurgency would spill across the Mediterranean and into France. (The 1995 metro bombings in France and the attempted Air France hijacking in 1994 are the most memorable instances.) And perhaps they did not anticipate that the fever would not break for another 10 years, leaving scars that will long mark the Algerian nation.

But by means either Machiavellian or misbegotten, the Algerian generals succeeded in eliminating a credible Islamic interlocutor. By banning the FIS and pursuing moderate figures as relentlessly as extremist ones, they guaranteed the radicalization and fragmentation of political Islam in Algeria. As a result, by the end of the decade, the country's cagey new president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was able to offer an amnesty to the remaining armed groups that effectively ended the civil war with the military on top.

During the so-called "black decade," Algeria's civil society, not the generals, paid the price for taking on the FIS militarily. Moreover, not only did the Algerian military's merciless tactics pummel the insurgency (and an untold number of innocents), but the army also succeeded in reinventing itself -- much like the French army had done during Algeria's war of independence. As the historian Luis Suarez has noted, the army both "modernized its tools of repression" and became the most important employer in Algeria. In an ironic turn of events, many of the unemployed youths who had voted for the FIS were now, in pursuit of paychecks, enlisting in the fight against them.

In the long run, le pouvoir emerged triumphant. On the verge of being neutralized by the FIS in 1992, they instead became and remain Algeria's most powerful institution. This, of course, brings us back to Egypt's situation. The historian James Le Sueur has suggested that Algeria's generals in 1992 had their eyes on Turkey as their model -- maintaining a secular state where the army's preeminence, power, and perquisites went unquestioned. Of course, 20 years later the Turkish model itself has dramatically changed. Is it possible, then, that the Egyptian generals are now focused on an Algerian model?

With the violent resurgence of the Egyptian deep state over the past month, the similarities are certainly striking. Following on the heels of the army's mass killing of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators last week in Cairo, 37 pro-Morsy prisoners were reportedly killed while in the custody of security forces, while another 25 police officers were murdered by Islamist fighters in the Sinai. Other, perhaps more telling, parallels involve the Egyptian military's detention of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood officials in secret locations; its insistence, now parroted by the Egyptian media, that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization; the imposition of a state of emergency; and the evaporation of a political center where both sides could conceivably meet.

The most dismal similarity is that both the Algerian and Egyptian generals declared that, rather than executing a coup against democracy, they were defending democracy against Islamic fanatics attempting to hijack the political process. Two decades later in Algeria, democracy remains elusive, and army and intelligence chiefs still play a powerful role in government. But the fact that the seismic events of the Arab Spring barely touched Algeria suggests that the army succeeded in its principal goal: defending its own interests against an independent Islamist political force.  

The ambitions of Sisi and the Egyptian deep state may be no different, and their hardline attitude is certainly similar to that of the Algerian generals. During the 1990s, le pouvoir was divided between two camps: the conciliateurs and the eradicateurs. Whereas the former sought a political answer to the civil war, the latter insisted on a military solution. In the end, the eradicateurs carried the day, and it was only after a decade of civil war that the conciliateurs were allowed to play a productive role in working with what was left of the Islamist opposition. In Egypt, it is clear that the eradicateurs have also won the first round against the conciliateurs. If they continue to shape the state's response to the current crisis, Egypt may well be headed for its own black decade.



Strange Bedfellows

Is the turbulent Middle East bringing Sunni and Shiite jihadists together, or driving them to war?

Fifteen years ago this month, al Qaeda operatives executed two devastating, simultaneous car bomb attacks targeting the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The attacks in East Africa killed 223 people, injured more than 4,000, and brought international infamy to al Qaeda -- among other repercussions, they earned Osama bin Laden a place on the FBI's Most Wanted list.

U.S. embassies are still targets for violent extremists today -- as shown by the recent closure of 19 U.S. diplomatic outposts across the Middle East in response to intercepted communications from al Qaeda leaders -- but the nature of the terrorist threat has evolved over time. The relationship between al Qaeda Central and its regional franchises has changed dramatically, and the relationship between Sunni and Shiite terrorists is changing as well. These radicals have historically put aside their rivalries to focus on common enemies when their interests aligned -- witness Iran and Hezbollah's relationship with the Sunni Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization active in the Gaza Strip. But such partnerships have become more complicated as the two groups find themselves in open battle for control of Syria.

While Iran and Hezbollah played crucial roles training and preparing al Qaeda to hit American embassies in East Africa in 1998, such collaboration appears unlikely today. Back then, the enemy of their enemy was their friend -- but today, the two Shiite powers are at the epicenter of a Sunni-Shiite war that threatens to spill over from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq, and well beyond.

This fact has once again been driven home by the Aug. 15 car bomb explosion in Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs, which killed at least 18 people. The most likely culprit for the attack is Sunni jihadists angered by the Shiite paramilitary group's support of the Syrian regime.

The East Africa embassy bombings were eventually determined to be solely the work of bin Laden, but there is no doubt that the jihadist network benefited from years of collaboration with Iran. Early in the investigation, the FBI was already examining Iranian links to the attacks: An Aug. 13, 1998, report by the Times of London noted that the FBI was focusing on the movement of Kazem Tabatabai, the Iranian ambassador in Nairobi, and Ahmad Dargahi, the Iranian cultural attaché in Nairobi, who had left their posts two weeks before the attacks -- a pattern seen in 1992 and 1994, in the period leading up to the bombing of the Israeli embassy and AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, respectively.

There were good reasons law enforcement and intelligence officials worried about a possible Shiite extremist connection to this clearly Sunni extremist attack. To begin with, the suicide truck bombs that hit the East African embassies were similar to previous Hezbollah attacks. And as the 9/11 Commission made clear, already in the early 1990s "Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs," notably like the one used in the 1983 U.S. Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon. According to intelligence declassified for the 9/11 Commission Report, al Qaeda operatives, including top operatives involved in the Kenya cell's plotting of the embassy bombings, developed the tactical expertise to execute this kind of attack while attending Hezbollah terrorist training camps in Lebanon sometime in 1993.

Hezbollah's outreach to Sunni extremists in Africa and beyond, in fact, hearkens back even further. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hezbollah operatives began appearing in areas where Sunni Islamist groups were operating. For example, a 1987 CIA report documented Hezbollah's propaganda ties to Egyptian extremists. "Although logistical ties probably are extremely limited and are likely to remain so," the CIA noted, "for Hezbollah and its Iranian patron close public ties and apparent cooperation with radical Sunni groups constitute a valuable propaganda success underscoring their commitment to Islamic unity."

These ties would expand in a few short years, as al Qaeda and Iran joined forces to combat their common American enemy. According to the 1998 federal indictment in U.S. v. Usama bin Laden et al., the case against bin Laden in response to the East Africa embassy bombings, al Qaeda forged an alliance with the Iranian government as early as 1992, which was negotiated and agreed upon in Khartoum, Sudan. The relationship forged between the two entities in the mid-1990s led al Qaeda emissaries to travel to Iran for training in explosives, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. Author Lawrence Wright reported in his book The Looming Tower that Imad Mughniyeh, the head of Hezbollah's international terrorist branch and also believed to be a commissioned officer in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, also agreed to train al Qaeda members in exchange for weapons. Al Qaeda and its affiliated Egyptian Islamic Jihad sent members to Lebanon at various times between 1992 and 1996 to receive training from Hezbollah, according to the federal indictment.

In the end, neither Iran nor Hezbollah was behind the East Africa embassy bombings -- that infamy falls to al Qaeda alone. But both played critical roles in the years leading up to the bombings by providing the precise training al Qaeda operatives would need to successfully carry them out. With these links severed today, both al Qaeda and Iran-linked terrorists will likely be on their own as they plan future attacks against the United States.

This marks the end of a long alliance between both sets of extremist groups, which extended well into the 2000s. A few months after the end of the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the United Nations revealed Somalia's radical Islamic Courts Union (ICU) dispatched some 720 experienced militants to Lebanon to fight alongside Hezbollah against the Israeli military. "One of the criteria of the selection process," the U.N. monitoring mission in Somalia reported, "was individuals' combat experience, which might include experience in Afghanistan." Only roughly 80 members of the Somali militant force returned to Mogadishu after the fighting ended, according to the U.N. report.

In early September 2006, the United Nations reported, some 25 additional Somali fighters returned home -- accompanied by five Hezbollah members. The U.N. report did not say what business the five Hezbollah members had in Somalia, though it did note elsewhere that Hezbollah "has provided military training to ICU and has made arrangements with other States on behalf of ICU for the latter to receive arms." Among the Somali fighters who had not returned home, the report added, "a number" extended their stays in Lebanon to attend advanced military training courses provided by Hezbollah.

The Syrian war raging today has wrecked these decades-old relationships. Sunni fighters are once again flocking to a foreign battlefield -- but now they are going to fight against Hezbollah militants, not to be trained by them. Hezbollah soldiers have reportedly clashed with militants fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, across the country -- notably in the cities of Qusayr, Homs, and Aleppo.

The Syrian war's repercussions on the al Qaeda network in Iran -- which has been operating for years, with the apparent acquiescence of Tehran -- is so far unclear. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the al Qaeda network agreed to refrain from conducting any operations on Iranian soil and keep the Iranian government informed of its activities -- and in return, Tehran allows the jihadists freedom of operation and mobility throughout the country. But Syria may throw a wrench in this arrangement: The Treasury Department also noted that the network's leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, is "leveraging his extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors to send money to Syria," and that the group was also sending fighters to support al Qaeda-affiliated networks in Syria. Such activity would presumably remove Fadhli from Iran's good graces -- but hard facts on the evolution of al Qaeda activities in Iran are still hard to come by.

The collapse of these strategic partnerships has been accompanied by an upsurge in sectarian vitriol targeting the Shiite parties. In late May, one of the world's most influential Sunni clerics, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called for jihad in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad's government and its supporters, Iran and Hezbollah, "who are more infidel than Jews and Christians." A wave of statements harnessing sectarian animosity to justify support for a Syrian jihad soon followed: Saudi Arabia's grand mufti denounced Hezbollah as the "party of Satan," Saudi cleric Saud al-Shuraim declared from the pulpit of Mecca's Grand Mosque that believers had a duty to support Syrian rebels "by all means," a group of Yemeni Sunni clerics released a fatwa calling for the "defense of the oppressed" in Syria, and then Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy denounced both the Assad regime and Hezbollah at a rally in Cairo, waving the flag of the Syrian opposition.

The longer the Syrian war persists, the deeper the sectarian divide will grow -- not only between average Sunni and Shiite faithful, but even between the violent extremists within each sect. That could change, of course: The groups could once again strike a temporary alliance in order to combat a graver threat. But for now, the Syrian war has ensured that terrorists who used to pool their resources to attack the United States will now be forced to carry out their deadly work all on their own.