In the face of military repression, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt now finds itself at a crossroads of choice: answer violence with violence, or continue to opt for peaceful resistance, in spite of the death toll resulting from every protest.
The first road was that chosen by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria when, in January 1992, the army aborted an electoral process that was about to give the Front a clear majority in the national parliament, and dissolved the municipal councils in which Islamists had been governing since 1990. The second is the road the Turkish Islamists chose when, in February 1997, the army forced the resignation of the Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan.
Their followers went on fighting, but by means of democratic politics. Four years later, the merger of several small parties gave birth to the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) which won the 2002 elections, and since then has been governing Turkey under the hand of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Most informed observers, however, are inclined to think that the near future of Egypt looks more like that of Algeria in the 1990s than that of Turkey. "There are many similarities between what is happening now in Egypt and what happened 20 years ago in Algeria," Rachid Grim, for example, told the Algerian digital daily TSA. "I am convinced that they are headed for civil war," he added.
The civil war in Algeria began with a number of terrorist attacks in the summer of 1992, eight months after the aborted electoral process, when thousands of FIS militants, including their leaders, had been jailed. The military repression early that year incited many young Islamists to take up arms and join the Armed Islamic Movement and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).
The south of neighboring Libya has become a lawless territory where terrorist groups already do as they please
When the war reached its zenith of intensity (1994-95) there were probably some 30,000 men fighting against the army and the paramilitary forces, but also indiscriminately killing thousands of civilians. Hence the Islamist militias were commonly termed terrorists. The darkest estimates for the decade of the 1990s as a whole run to 300,000 dead in Algeria. Just as is now happening in Egypt, many liberal and secular people in Algeria aligned themselves at the time with the "eradicators" of Islamism.
Why is it that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt seems likely to follow in the footsteps of the Algerian Islamists? Well, because "the armed forces cleared the squares in Cairo in an extraordinarily brutal manner," says Rachid Grim. The Muslim Brotherhood is, however, a highly disciplined movement, which renounced violence as long ago as 1970.
Mohamed Hennad, another Algerian political scientist, predicted in this newspaper in July, a month before the massacres, that "at least some of these people [the Islamists] are sure to resort to violence." In other words, in the most optimistic scenario, we will see in Egypt a reappearance of terrorist groups such as Al Gama'a al-Islamiyya, which assassinated President Anwar el Sadat in 1981, or Islamic Jihad.
Such a resurgence will be all the easier in that they can receive aid from Libya next door. The south of that country, especially the immense region of the Fezzan, has become a lawless territory where terrorist groups, some of them having fled from Mali, already do as they please.
The violence that plagued Algeria a couple of decades ago, which still flares up occasionally, is the breeding ground that gave rise to the Maghreb branch of Al Qaeda and to its implantation in northern Mali. This has resulted in a rash of attacks and hostage incidents in Mauritania and Niger, and in the transformation of southern Libya into a "black hole" for security.
Something similar may now be about to happen in Egypt, that is, in a region even more sensitive than the Maghreb, close to the Persian Gulf and to Israel.