Curious onlookers look at the debris outside La Moneda government palace in Santiago de Chile, on the morning of Sept. 15, 1973. (AP Photo)
I watch from afar the tragedy of Egypt and, inevitably, I think of Chile. I think of Chile and its coup, and I mourn the dead and I mourn history repeating itself. Yet again the massacres and the soldiers in the streets and the jails filled with tortured bodies. Once again the exiles and the censorship; once again a general with dark sunglasses justifying bloodshed in the name of the fatherland; once more the branding of any opposition as terrorism.
And then I remember that Chile is not only a study in sorrow, and tentatively, doubtfully, I perceive a possible way out for the troubled land of Egypt.
After all, fifteen years after the September 11, 1973, coup against democratically elected President Salvador Allende, the Chilean people managed to defeat our dictatorship in a historic plebiscite, an event recently recalled in the film No. Reaching that triumphant day, October 5, 1988, was possible only because we had laboriously created the Concertación, a variegated alliance of parties and citizens that imposed a transition to democracy so successful that Chile will celebrate this November its sixth presidential election in twenty-four years. So my country can perhaps offer Egyptians a strategy whereby a fearful and divided populace can rid itself of an oppressive regime.
Can Egypt reproduce this model? It is a daunting task. Chile, unlike Egypt, had a long history of democratic politics, a tradition that allowed Allende to initiate a peaceful revolution, the first attempt to build socialism without resorting to violence as its unruly midwife. Nor did Allende try, like Morsi, to grab all power for himself or persecute and arrest his detractors. And Egypt, unlike Chile, is haunted by religious discord, making compromise all the more difficult.
Despite these salient contrasts, the dire dilemma faced by Egyptians today is strikingly similar to the one we Chileans confronted back in 1973. The coup against Allende was made possible because the forces for democracy and change were badly split: the Christian Democratic Party, which should have been a progressive ally of the Unidad Popular coalition headed by Allende, ended up (with a few honorable exceptions) fomenting the coup, under the illusion that the military would soon return the country to a constitutional regime. This myopia and selfishness was actively cultivated and financed by the CIA, which was desperate to destroy Allende’s experiment in social justice—one that, if it had triumphed, would have ominously affected American and multinational corporate interests. But the antagonism of the CDP was facilitated as well by sectarianism and arrogance among far too many revolutionary militants, including myself. And it was complicated further by an extremist left-wing faction inside and outside the Unidad Popular that scared middle-class sectors of the country, feeding the dread of committed patriots that Allende—a lifelong believer in pluralism—was paving the way not to democratic socialism, but to a “second Cuba.”
I could rehash this conflict at great length, pointing out that the CDP was more to blame than our side, given that its leaders rejected last-minute calls from our president to find a constitutional path out of the crisis. They’d answer that we were insufficiently democratic and puffed-up with power and… Though today such finger-pointing can help set the record straight, it was not crucial during the urgent years after the coup, when we needed to find common ground on which the majority of the country could meet (the Unidad Popular plus the CDP polled 65 percent of the vote in the 1970 elections), a consensus between those democrats opposed to Allende and those who supported him.