Monday, January 31, 2011

U.S. Policy Toward Algeria as a Case Study for the Egypt Crisis

By Barry Rubin

Two former ambassadors and several current and former U.S. diplomats have written me agreeing with my warnings regarding Egypt. One of them made the following remarks which I have heavily paraphrased.

After the 1991 elections in Algeria, in which the Islamic Salvation Front won 47 percent in the first round and was headed toward taking power, the army canceled the election and established a military junta as the government.

The U.S. government discussed the issue and decided to do nothing, remembering the Iranian experience and understanding that "one man, one vote, one time" for a radical Islamist regime was neither a great triumph for democracy or in the U.S. interest.

The U.S. hands-off policy toward Algeria during the civil war was a great success. The civil war was a horrible tragedy and both sides committed atrocities. But there was no way America could have prevented or mitigated this situation. The Algerian government appreciated the U.S. stance and its policies became a lot less extremist and hostile.

Some elements in the U.S.government wanted to push the Algerian government into negotiations with the Islamists and a coalition to emerge. The French government, which was taking the lead, was strongly opposed to this as were a number of U.S. officials. Among those supporting bringing in the Islamists was Robert Malley, today head of the International Crisis Group and an advocate for Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. 

The U.S. government decided to stay out of it and, while no bed of roses (except for the thorns), the Algerian situation has turned out as well as could be expected.

While the United States has more leverage in Egypt than it had in Algeria, ability to affect events there is limited. Still, attempts to force that government into open elections--the approach that brought civil war to Algeria--and a totally different regime would be a big mistake, paid for in Egyptian blood and American interests.

Optional reading:

PS: As a check on Europe, consider the debate in the Netherlands. Today, two members of parliament--one conservative and one left-liberal--appeared on television and agreed on everything: Mubarak's era is over; democratic change is here; events are comparable to Eastern Europe in 1989.

The Labor party guy said this shows all the talk for years about the radical Islamist threat is false. On the other hand though, if the West doesn't side with the democratic forces a small minority of radicals (sic) would hijack the situation. Both agreed that Europe was very "guilty" because of having supported Mubarak for such a long time.

And the Labor party man got in the view that the United States had no need of having Israel as an ally any more because it didn't want to talk to the Palestinians (after two years when Israel has been seeking talks and the Palestinian Authority has refused!).

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