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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/24/13

Taking Sides In Egypt

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Source: To The Point Analyses

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Abdel Fattah el Sisi announcing the overthrow of the elected government

Part I -- Historical Precedents 

There are a series of historical precedents that can give us insight into the problems now seen in Egypt. These precedents are from both the West and the Middle East. Both are relevant because the conflict in Egypt has modern structural qualities that are transcultural. Among others, these qualities are: a traditional military caste allied to a reactionary police force, to a reactionary judiciary and to "big business" elements; a middle class most of whose members have a stated aspiration for both stability and a democratic society; and a bete noire (dark beast) factor -- a fear shared by the first two groups of a third group. In the European/U.S. context this bete noire group is usually identified as a politically organized left designated as Communist. In the context of the Middle East this role is usually played by politically active Islamist organizations. In both cases the bete noire element may represent a significant portion of the population. 

Here are two examples, one from the West and one from the Middle East, of how precedents involving these transcultural structural elements played themselves out. In both cases the consequences were horrific. After setting these out we will see how these precedents shed light on the current Egyptian situation.  

Part II -- The Weimar Republic 1919 

The Weimar Republic came into being in Germany at the end of World War I, when Germany had fallen into chaos. Due to pressure from the victorious Allies, the monarchical government collapsed and a new republican government, the Weimar Republic, came into being. However, while the German monarch (the Kaiser) went into exile in the Netherlands, the old government's authoritarian bureaucracies stayed behind. These included a reactionary military officer corps as well as an entrenched reactionary police and court system. On the left of the political spectrum was a strong Communist movement. In the middle were a number of parties of moderate democratic temperament which soon formed the majority in the Weimar Republic's Reichstag, or parliament.  

In the chaotic conditions that prevailed, the Weimar leaders mistakenly assumed the loyalty of the bureaucracies of the monarchical era would transfer to the new democratic government. Thus they made no attempt to purge their reactionary elements. This turned out to be a fatal error. 

It was also the case that the democratic government and most of its supporters (there were but few exceptions) feared the left more than the right. The reactionary bureaucracies hated the left but also had no love for the democrats. Ultimately, the democratic parties acquiesced in the often extra-legal and violent actions the reactionary right took to destroy the left. Once the Communists had been destroyed the democratic forces, including the government itself, had no leverage against the armed and ascendant right. Within a short time democracy was dead in Germany. 

For our purposes, the important points to remember about the Weimar Republic are: Most of the German democrats, when confronted by a choice between a reactionary right and the politically active left chose a de facto alliance with the right. Also, in the case of Weimar, the rightist reactionary mentality was already institutionalized in the army, police, and courts.  

Some would say that this is the way things had to be to save Germany from Communism which would have established its own harsh authoritarian system. However, this was never a necessary outcome and Germany's democratic forces could have made other alliances than the one with the reactionary right. Of course, that did not happen, so we will never know where such an alternative path would have led.   

Part III -- Algeria 1991 

In December of 1991 free multi-party elections were held in Algeria for the first time since the country had gained independence from France. The election was to be held in two rounds, but was never completed. The first round was won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and this same Islamist party was seen as the certain winner of the second round. Because of that expectation, the Algerian military led by a rightist officer corps with no respect for democracy stepped in, canceled the election, and appointed its own "government." The military also began arresting thousands of Islamists; so many that the jails could not hold them all, and internment camps were set up in the Sahara Desert. This strategy of mass arrests effectively eliminated the moderate wing of the FIS and left the more violent and often brutal Islamists to fight an equally brutal and violent secular regime. Many who backed the military were known as les eradicateurs (the eradicators), those who refused all compromise with the Islamists and simply sought their eradication. What followed was a horrendous civil war and the deaths of tens of thousands of Algerians. 

The Algerian military coup against the democratic process was supported by many of the Algerian middle class who saw themselves as Francophiles (that is, more culturally French than Algerian Arab). In principle they would have preferred a democracy, but not one that brought Islamists to power. If they had to choose between an Islamist democracy and a reactionary right-wing dictatorship, they would, with but few exceptions, opt for the latter.  

At the time some claimed that a free election won by moderate Islamists would not really result in democratic government. They claimed that the FIS would change the country's constitution and then cancel all future elections -- the "one election, one time" phenomenon. However, while those who supported the coup asserted this, they did not know it would be so. And, because of the military dictatorship that resulted from the coup, new elections would not be held for 20 years. 

Part IV -- Egypt 2013 

Most Egyptians, religious and secular (the exceptions were the military officer corps, elements of the police and judiciary, and some of the business class), wanted the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak replaced by democracy. Using the tactic of mass demonstrations, both secular and Islamist organizations managed to get rid of the dictator in February 2011 and scare the military into allowing a process that led to free and fair elections.  

Those elections were won by Muhammad Morsi, who was a follower of the Muslim Brotherhood, and an array of Islamist legislative delegates. Morsi and his government began the process of creating a new constitution for the country that reflected the Islamic nature of their victory. This was a work in progress and there may ultimately have been room for compromise, particularly as Morsi became aware of the strength of the secular opposition. It is estimated that some 54% of Egyptians would like to see democracy on the present Turkish model, "a secular republic currently being successfully ruled by moderate Islamists." 

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Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign
Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest
; America's
Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli
; and Islamic Fundamentalism. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.

His blog To The Point Analyses now has its own Facebook page. Along with the analyses, the Facebook page will also have reviews, pictures, and other analogous material.

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