In the winter of 1995, I was having dinner with Burhaneddin Rabbani, then President of Afghanistan in the post-Communist era. I asked him what he thought about the Taliban, a militant group that had just erupted on the Afghan political scene with support from Pakistan.
“They are doing a good job,” Rabbani said, referring to the Taliban’s campaign to destroy the Hizb Islami (Islamic Party) of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a mainly Pushtun outfit then supported by the mullahs in Tehran. At that time, Hekmatyar’s murderous gang was also involved in an endless battle against Rabbani’s outfit, the Jamiat Islami (Islamic Association) for the control of Kabul, a duel that turned the Afghan capital into a heap of fuming debris.
When I suggested to Rabbani that the Taliban seemed to me far worse than Hekmatyar, and that was saying something, the Afghan leader was dismissive. “No one can be as bad as that god-forsaken beast,” he said, refusing to mention Hekmatyar by name.
A year later, Rabbani with a price on his head, was driven out of Kabul by the same Taliban.
Rabbani’s analysis was based on the classical political illusion based on the cliché that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
The Afghan leader was not the first to fall for that insipid cliché.
In 1970, I heard a similar an analysis from Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat. In interview, he elaborated his plans for leading Egypt away from the Soviet camp as part of a strategy to repair the damage that Nasser had done to the nation. In that context, he was determined to purge the pro-Soviet elements of the ruling party while ordering a crackdown on other leftist and Communist groups and parties. In exchange, he was to tone down Nasser’s campaign against the Islamists and, in some cases, offer them concessions in exchange for their putative support against the left.
A decade later, Sadat was assassinated by the same Islamists that he had favored.
Sadat’s close friend, the Shah of Iran, also committed the same error. Prompted by his almost pathological loathing for the left he encouraged Islamist groups, financed the mullahs, offered extensive media time to religious programs, and even created a Religious Corps whose task was to spread the teachings of e faith across the land.
A decade later, that policy bore an unexpected fruit. The Communists allied themselves to the Khomeinists and overthrew the Shah in the name of Islam. The “enemy of my enemy” had not become a friend. In exile in new York, thousands of miles away, the fallen monarch lamented his mistake.
” I gave the mullahs too much freedom, ” he told me from his hospital bed.
History has many other examples of unnatural alliances that have ended in grief for their initiators.
In 1917 Russia’s liberal Kadet party and other moderate groups allied themselves with the Bolsheviks to overthrow the Tsar. Lenin described the event as “an alliance of the neck and the noose”. The neck belonged to the liberals while the Bolsheviks represented the noose.
Benito Mussolini, a bombastic adventurer, was transformed into the leader of the Fascist Party, and eventually made dictator of Italy, by Italian capitalists who feared the left. He ended up doing to the same capitalists what Italian Communists would not have done.
After the Spartacist revolt in Berlin, the German bourgeoisie rushed into financing the most extremist of he right-wing parties as a means of preventing a Communist revolution.
Eventually the Nazi Party was formed to do the job with the money provided by leading German financiers, some of them Jewish. A decade later, “the enemy of my enemy” was destroying the German bourgeoisie and planning the Holocaust against the Jews.
Most political leaders, however, either do not read history or fail to learn from it. This is why the same mistakes are committed, repeatedly.
In the 1980s, the Algerian ruling elite under Chadli Bendjedid, an honest but unimaginative colonel, decided to play the Islamist card against their people’s growing aspiration for freedom of expression and political pluralism. Islamist teachers and preachers were imported from Egypt and unleashed against an unsuspecting populace. The state-owned media wee turned into pulpits for peddlers of populism like the late Muhammad al-Ghazzali.
The colonel’s investment in Islamism bore fruits in the late 1980s when he Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS) emerged as the country’s best organized and most massively financed political machine.
After a decade of biter war against the Islamists- a war that claimed at least 100,000 lives- President Abdulaziz Bouteflika decided to revive Bendjedid’s strategy by offering concession to Islamists in a bid to marginalize the left and the liberals.
Algeria today has the most Islamist government of its history. The National Liberation Front (FLN), which remains the ruling party in Algeria, always had a split personality. On the one hand, it described itself as Socialist and was active in the international leftist movement. On the other, it played the Islamist card as an element of self-definition against Algeria’s former colonial masters.
Today, the FLN’s Islamist wing is in the ascendancy. The Prime Minister Abdulaziz Belkhadem is a devout believer with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. At least a third of the Cabinet posts are held by “moderate” Islamists, while the liberals and the leftists have been excluded. Ahmad Ouyahya, the former prime minister who played a central role in defeating the Islamists, have been pushed aside and his key reforms that had angered the Islamists put on hold or reversed.
The FLN’s Islamist turn had also led to a general amnesty that has allowed thousands of criminals to re-integrate society. Thousands more, some of them with blood on their hands, have been released from prison and, in many cases, even reintegrated into civil service.
And, yet, the Islamists are not appeased. As the latest attacks throughout Algeria, including a spectacular suicide operation in the capital, show the government’s anti-left and anti-liberal stance has not endeared to the religious fanatics.
What will the regime do in next month’s general election? Will it use the notorious machinery of fraud to produce a false majority to please the Islamists? Or will it allow the country’s liberal and reformist formations the space they need to assert their presence?