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August 21, 2007

1991: Algeria
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Thanks to all those who took the "1953/1991 test for future U.S. policymakers." I know the suspense has been overwhelming as you've waited on the edge of your coffee-stained seats, wondering what could have possibly happened in 1991. For newcomers, the question I posed was: "What two major (U.S.-relevant) events occurred in 1953 and 1991 in the Middle East?" Or, stated differently, what are the two events that every future U.S. policymaker (who deals even tangentially with the Middle East) should know about ?

Most of you got the 1953 part right: it was the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of Iran's democratically-elected leader, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. At the risk of indulging in the heady art of counterfactualizing, I would venture to say that if 1953 didn't happen, 1979 wouldn't have happened, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have become a bus driver. I actually made this argument a while ago; see here.

The more difficult one, though, was 1991. Only one commenter, "judy," got it right: U.S. silence/tacit approval of the military coup which effectively ended what was then the most promising democratic experiment the Arab world had yet seen. Here's a quick overview of what happened:

On December 26, 1991, in [Algeria's] first free legislative elections, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won 47 percent of the vote and was poised to capture a commanding parliamentary majority. The staunchly secular military, claiming to save democracy from itself, intervened, canceling the elections and provoking a brutal civil war that would rage for more than a decade...the United States stopped well short of outright criticism, saying instead that the military intervention did not actually violate the Algerian one State Department official later remarked, "By not saying or doing anything, the Bush Administration supported the Algerian government by default."

Even in hindsight, James Baker, who had been secretary of state at the time, was unrepentant: "Generally speaking, when you support democracy, you take what democracy gives you . . . If it gives you a radical Islamic fundamentalist, you’re supposed to live with it. We didn’t live with it in Algeria because we felt that the radical fundamentalists’ views were so adverse to what we believe in and what we support, and to what we understood the national interests of the United States to be."


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"we felt that the radical fundamentalists’ views were so adverse to what we believe in and what we support, and to what we understood the national interests of the United States to be."

which betrays the fundamental cynicism of the realpolitik foreign policy view, and that of their democracy-promotion-in-name heirs, the neocons, about democracy as a universal principle.

Oops, missed the test when I was on vacation this weekend. Oh well. Anyways, I quite agree with their centrality and I'd guess they would make excellent litmus tests. I'd be interested in what neo-cons have actually said about them, if anything.

Thanks for the answer. I think those two events were emblematic of our problems the US has in the Middle East.

One has to admit that silent approval of the coup was a common western policy. And the lead nation on western algerian policy was not the U.S., but France. France still dominates western policy on Algeria.

And like the U.S. reaps what its sows on other fields, France did bear the brunt of the backlash in the form of islamistic terrorism in the 90s.

It's interesting how the current dilemma of politics and Islam in the greater Middle East seems to be a false dichotomy of having democracy and Islam, or having dictatorship and secularism. Look at Turkey, look at Algeria, look at Egypt, look almost anywhere and it seems like the two forces of secular government and democracy are at odds with each other. Then look at two of the outliers: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both religious (though Saudi Arabia is a strange case of how they deal with Islam and politics), but both are relatively unpopular governments.
Iran seems like a strange case to use as a model for the other states, but from what I understand the majority of people there are more secular than the state and more open to modern ideas than the state. Why does this seem to be true in Iran, but does not seem to be true elsewhere among these states? I would have thought that 1953 and 1979 would have made the people there less inclined to constructively work with the West. Any ideas?

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