Cairo, heed the lessons from Algiers and Beirut

As Egypt’s euphoria subsides and the hard work of shepherding a genuine democratic transition begins, Cairo should heed the lessons learned from failed transformations in Algiers and Beirut. Both offer important insights into how powerful anti-democratic forces can reverse incipient political openings. Well before Tunisia and Egypt, Algeria and Lebanon achieved important milestones in Arab ...

AFP/Getty Images.
AFP/Getty Images.
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As Egypt's euphoria subsides and the hard work of shepherding a genuine democratic transition begins, Cairo should heed the lessons learned from failed transformations in Algiers and Beirut. Both offer important insights into how powerful anti-democratic forces can reverse incipient political openings. Well before Tunisia and Egypt, Algeria and Lebanon achieved important milestones in Arab politics: Algeria via an unprecedented top-down political opening and Lebanon through the post-colonial Arab world's first successful popular uprising. In both instances, dramatic gains vanished, giving way to civil war in Algeria and deepening sectarianism and resurgent Syrian influence in Lebanon.

As Egypt’s euphoria subsides and the hard work of shepherding a genuine democratic transition begins, Cairo should heed the lessons learned from failed transformations in Algiers and Beirut. Both offer important insights into how powerful anti-democratic forces can reverse incipient political openings. Well before Tunisia and Egypt, Algeria and Lebanon achieved important milestones in Arab politics: Algeria via an unprecedented top-down political opening and Lebanon through the post-colonial Arab world’s first successful popular uprising. In both instances, dramatic gains vanished, giving way to civil war in Algeria and deepening sectarianism and resurgent Syrian influence in Lebanon.

Algeria’s democratic experiment dates to 1989 when President Chadli Bendjedid responded to widespread popular anger by initiating sweeping political reforms. The constitution was amended by popular referendum, ending the National Liberation Front’s 30-year monopoly on power. The government legalized the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist opposition movement with significant grassroots support. It also granted broad freedoms, opening civil society and freeing the press. Human rights improved dramatically with the disbanding of the feared secret police. Torture virtually disappeared.

But it was not to last. Following an impressive showing in earlier municipal elections, the Islamists were poised to win a parliamentary majority in January 1992 after the first round of elections. Instead, the military intervened, forced the president to resign, and halted the electoral process, installing an extraconstitutional governing body led by a series of appointed presidents. Algeria’s aborted experiment with democracy quickly deteriorated into violence as armed Islamist militants battled the army in a lengthy civil war.

Lebanon’s "Cedar Revolution" burst onto the scene on March 14, 2005. On that day, 1 million Lebanese citizens — a quarter of the population — marched on Martyrs’ Square in Beirut, demanding the Syrian military’s withdrawal. Incensed by the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese people crossed generational and sectarian lines to direct their ire at the Syrian regime, widely suspected of ordering the attack. Bowing to Lebanese popular pressure and fearful of U.S. intentions following the Iraq invasion, Damascus withdrew its army, ending nearly 30 years of occupation.

Once again, significant advances on the ground were overtaken by more powerful, regressive dynamics. No sooner had the last Syrian military convoy left Lebanon then a shadowy assassination campaign targeting Lebanese critics of Syria began. An emboldened Hezbollah initiated a disastrous war with Israel, killing 1,200 Lebanese civilians and displacing 1 million. Later, in May 2008, the Shiite group turned its arms on its fellow Lebanese in a bid to protect its "resistance" apparatus. Significant divisions among those who marched together on March 14 soon emerged. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a founding member of the alliance, abandoned the coalition, instead throwing his support to Hezbollah and its allies.

Efforts to implement much-needed electoral reforms such as proportional voting and the use of pre-printed ballots faltered. In August 2005, a high-level commission was established to draft a new electoral law, but parliamentarians — keen on retaining the sectarian-based patronage system — stripped the draft law of all key reforms before passing a much watered-down law. Instead, Lebanon reverted to feudal, confessional politics where voters are mobilized by entrenched sectarian fears rather than broad-based nationalist sentiment. Syria, having emerged from international isolation, gradually returned to the Lebanese arena. With Lebanon’s underlying political and societal ills unresolved, Damascus (and other external players) once again exploited an environment propitious for outside meddling. Indeed, a combination of primal Lebanese politics and resurgent Syrian influence has all but snuffed out the Cedar Revolution’s spirit.

Embedded in these two experiences are important lessons for those interested in promoting Egypt’s democratic transition. While circumstances in all three cases differ significantly, Algeria and Lebanon still offer important insights as Egypt embarks on the long road toward democratic transition. Algeria’s parallels to Egypt are clearer, given the predominance of a military-backed, repressive government in both cases. Meanwhile, Lebanon, like Egypt, experienced an abrupt and significant rupture with the past. Both emerged from 30 years of political stagnation and the absence of the rule of law, and have been presented with unparalleled opportunities to shape the future. Some useful observations can be distilled from Algeria and Lebanon.

First, Egypt must resist the urge to rush elections. In the Algerian case, elections took place precipitously, without the grounding of political institutions, the establishment of checks and balances, or sufficient political party development — essential keystones for a stable democracy. Lebanon held its elections hastily as well, immediately after the Syrian withdrawal. Compelled by a constitutional mandate and fears that sectarian squabbling over electoral reforms would delay elections indefinitely, opposition leaders pushed for elections even though they were governed by a Syrian-era law that distorted results.

In Egypt, constitutional amendments are essential but not sufficient to address the need to build strong, independent institutions. Adequate time must be given for political party development to ensure a pluralistic outcome, rather than domination by one party. Electoral law reforms will be essential to ensure a system that promotes rather than obstructs a democratic opening. The dismantling of the Mubarak regime’s emergency laws will also be critical for the necessary political opening that allows incipient parties to mobilize support.

Second, Egypt must promote electoral reforms that allow for proportional rather than "winner take all" elections. Both Algeria and Lebanon illustrate the downsides of majoritarian electoral systems. "Winner take all" elections necessarily exaggerate the popularity of winning parties at the expense of smaller independents that are deprived of the opportunity to seat candidates. In Algeria, the FIS would not have swept the parliament under proportional elections, but instead won a percentage of seats more reflective of its actual influence. In Lebanon, proportional elections would have opened space for independent candidates, loosening the stranglehold of feudal sectarian leaders. As Egypt’s transition moves toward tackling electoral reforms, some form of proportional elections should take precedence.

Third, Egyptians must be wary of entrenched interests — military or otherwise. In both Algiers and Beirut, entrenched interests slowed or reversed the momentous changes that had occurred. In Algeria, the military quickly reasserted control, systematically dismantling political reforms and returning Algeria to a military-backed autocracy. In Lebanon, feudal sectarian leaders worked against the possibility of any significant political reform that would begin the democratic transformation of Lebanon’s sectarian political system. At the same time, Hezbollah — an ascendant force allied with Iran and Syria — helped pave the way for a return of Syrian influence to Lebanon. The United States and other key powers should leverage their influence and security assistance with the Egyptian military to ensure that it does not allow its power prerogatives to obstruct or reverse Egypt’s democratic transition.

For Washington policymakers, two additional points merit consideration. First, the perennial question of whether to endorse Islamist participation in free elections must be put to rest. Confronted with an Islamist majority in the Algerian parliament, Washington policymakers quietly supported a military coup, undermining any claims to support the Arab world’s first democratic opening. The notion of a U.S. "double standard" on democracy quickly took root throughout the Arab world.

Moreover, the Algerian army’s brutal tactics, largely unchallenged by the West, set a precedent to be repeated by repressive autocratic regimes throughout the region, particularly Egypt, which was facing its own Islamist challenge at the time. As Egypt’s democratic transition continues, Washington should resist the temptation to support limiting or preventing Islamist participation in Egypt’s political opening. To be sustainable and credible, democratic transition must encompass all segments of Egyptian society willing to play by democratic rules, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Finally, U.S. policymakers must stay focused on Egypt and exploit opportunities to cement its transformation. With turmoil continuing to roil the region, it will be difficult for Washington to zero in on Egypt — yet focus will be essential. Lost opportunities often cannot be recovered. In the case of Lebanon, Syria’s 2005 withdrawal presented Washington with an important chance to transform Lebanon’s troubled relationship with Syria. Instead of engaging the Syrians and consolidating their withdrawal from Lebanon, Washington was understandably taken by events in Iraq and then Afghanistan. Even in 2008, when Syria and Lebanon established diplomatic ties, Washington did not appear to capitalize on this important development and help move the countries toward fully normalizing relations.

The stakes are even greater with Egypt — success would provide a blueprint for the rest of the Arab world as the region struggles to overcome decades of autocratic rule. Egypt once again has the opportunity to play a leading role in the Arab world, and Washington should do all that it can to ensure that Cairo succeeds.

Mona Yacoubian is a senior advisor at the Center for Conflict Management at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Mona Yacoubian served as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau at USAID from 2014 to 2017.

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