Some 200,000 people died in a decade of civil war in Algeria after uniformed officers rejected a popular vote for Islamists, an example some in Cairo darkly cite after the army ousted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president on Wednesday.
While Algeria’s Islamists were never allowed to govern, Egypt’s Mohammed Mursi ran the country for a year, and a wide spread sense that he was author of his own misfortunes may deter some who might have taken up arms in his cause.
But his removal could still split Islamist groups that have entered Egyptian politics since a 2011 uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak, an autocrat who repressed them for decades.
Egyptian Islamists such as the Brotherhood and their erstwhile ultraconservative allies risk losing those followers, especially among the young, who conclude Egypt’s democratic experiment has failed and peaceful politics will get them nowhere.
Mursi’s National Security Adviser Essam El-Haddad wrote in a valedictory Facebook post, “The message will resonate throughout the Muslim World loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims.”
As authorities rounded up some of the Brotherhood’s most prominent figures, one of its senior members, MohamedEl-Beltagy, laid bare the dangers at a pro-Mursi sit-in outside a Cairo mosque on Thursday.
“The issue now is the position of the free world that is pushing the country to a state of chaos and pushing groups other than the Brotherhood to return to the idea of change by force.”
The rhetoric has heated up since the army first said it might intervene after millions of protesters flooded the streets to demand Mursi’s resignation.
“You’ve made new mujahideen, new people who will seek martyrdom. Know that if one out of every 10 of those here blows himself up, you are the reason,” said one man, referring to army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in a YouTube video purportedly taken at a large pro-Mursi rally in Cairo this week.
Hours before the army removed Mursi, Mohamed Nufil, a 44-year-old government employee at the same rally, said he was certain the president's supporters would turn to violence if the army aborted what they saw as a legitimate democratic process.
“If there is a coup, Egypt will have two options: It willbecome like Syria, or it will become like Algeria in the ‘90s.That is the alternative. It will happen,” he said.
Most Mursi supporters see the military intervention as a coup, while Egyptian authorities say they were merely responding to the demands of the Egyptian people.
Egypt has been a crucible of militant Islamist movements for decades, and its government a regular focus of their ire.
The three main presidents that have served since 1952, when a coup installed military-backed rule, have all accused Islamists of trying to kill them. In the case of Anwar Sadat, who made peace with Israel, they succeeded.
In the 1990s, Islamist insurgents waged a bloody campaign against security forces in southern Egypt.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, which carried out some of the most deadly attacks, eventually renounced violence and formed apolitical party after Mubarak was toppled.
But some Gamaa members have said publicly that they would take up arms again to defend Mursi, a threat the group’s leaders are now trying to play down, and which is controversial among the Islamist rank and file.
“If the army dares to kill democracy in Egypt, we will fight them,” Mohamed al-Amin, a 40-year-old Gamaa member, said hours ahead of the army decree, gesturing to the thousands of supporters who had gathered at the pro-Mursi rally in Cairo.
Sobhy Youssef, 45, a Brotherhood supporter sitting nearby, interrupted him: “No, no, my brother,” he said. “We are not taking up weapons. What we are taking up is our patience and our faith in God.”
Khalil al-Anani, an expert on political Islam at Britain’s Durham University, said the risk of low-level violence in Egypt was significant, especially in the Sinai Peninsula, which has descended into lawlessness since Mubarak was ousted.
But groups like Gamaa had been chastened by the disastrous results of their insurgency in the 90s.
“Islamists know very well that violence is not the solution,” Anani said.
Still, the army’s ouster of Mursi may help militant groups like al Qaeda advance their argument that democracy is not the way forward, he added.
“Now, they would say, ‘Look, this is the democracy that you were fighting for’.”
A dangerous phase
The potency of that argument will depend on how the military handles the transition and how well Islamists that have signed up to its “road map” are able to hold their ranks together.
The ultraconservative Nour Party, Egypt’s second-biggest Islamist political movement after the Brotherhood, has endorsed the army plan. Like Gamaa Islamiya, it has urged its followers to refrain from violence.
“Before anyone decides to sacrifice themselves for the sake of President Mursi’s position, they must think that perhaps they will end up losing both things,” the group said in a statement on Thursday.
But engaging with the military plan could also alienate members.
Yassir al-Sirri, a former militant who lives in London where he runs an Islamic media and rights group, said the army’s “coup” against Mursi had pushed Egypt into a dangerous phase.
“Now people do not have faith in peaceful action, and they do not believe change can come through a peaceful route. This is the problem,” he said.
Egypt had the chance to bring young Islamists into a formal political framework, working in public, but this was now at risk, he said.
“Unless the situation is corrected as soon as possible, we are going backwards again.”