Monday, March 31, 2014

Making Sense of the Arab Spring 6: The End of Islamism?

Predicting political change has not been one of political scientists' strong points.  Few foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism or the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO that led to the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993.  Virtually no one predicted the Arab Spring.  However, once the Arab uprisings began, there was a wide consensus among Western analysts and policy-makers that Islamists would be the beneficiaries (see my "Who's Afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood?," Feb. 13, 2011;  In their view, the ouster of Arab autocrats would realize their worst fears - the spread of Islamic rule throughout the Arab world.

In their political projections, Western analysts were spurred on by the self-serving comments of  dictators such as Yemen's Ali Abdallah Salih who stated that , "The Arab Spring was born dead. It came in the shadow of hard circumstances in the Middle East, and it became a weapon in the hands of the Islamic movements."

Why, contrary to Western predictions, has Islamism not profited from the Arab Spring?  Why has the fear that Islamists would dominate the region not been realized?  Why, after almost 35 years, has there still been only one successful "Islamic revolution" in the Middle East, one that faces considerable opposition from the Iranian people?  Why do Western analysts keep getting it wrong?

One of the most striking developments following the ouster of Egyptian president Husni Mubarak in Egypt was the rise and precipitous fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.   After being elected president in June 2012, Muhammad Mursi, one of the most prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders, was deposed in June 2013 following massive demonstrations demanding his ouster.  At present, the Muslim Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government and largely forced underground.  Mursi is on trial for treason.  

The loss of power and influence by this venerable 85 year old organization has been breathtaking, especially considering its impact on a wide variety of Islamist movements and parties throughout the Arab world.  This influence extends to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the Jordanian Islamic Action Front, the Islah Party in Yemen, the al-Nahda Party in Tunisia, the Iraqi Islamic Party and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, just to name a few.

Yet it is not just the Muslim Brotherhood that has fallen on hard times.  In Tunisia, the al-Nahda (Renaissance) Party scored a solid electoral victory in October 2011, winning 40% of parliamentary seats.  Like the Brotherhood, it was also forced from office.  While al-Nahda decided to withdraw from power when they saw how unpopular they had become, their rise and fall points yet again to the simplistic model that many analysts have imposed on the state of Arab politics.  As I argue below, the popularity of Islamist parties has not been based on some abstract notion of religion or a function of increased religiosity of Muslim citizens of Arab states.

In Libya, great fear was expressed that Islamists would pick up the political pieces in the wake of the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in August 2011.  Islamists did not do particularly well in the June 2012 parliamentary elections.  The National Forces Alliance, a liberal-secular bloc headed by Mahmud Jibril, won 47% of the vote to the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party 10% of the vote.

In the broader Libyan political context, power continues to reside with the tribal militias that played a critical role in ousting Muammar al-Qaddafi, with Islamists largely confined to the sidelines.  When the radical Ansar al-Shari'a movement claimed responsibility for the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Smith and 3 American embassy guards in September 2012, residents of Benghazi subsequently burned the organization's headquarters and forced its members to go into hiding.

As security has  deteriorated in Libya with tribal militias refusing to give up their arms and submit to central government authority, intra-Islamist violence has escalated.  Increasingly radical Islamists have been targeting moderate Islamists, i.e., those who advocate elections and constitutional governance.  In the coastal town of Derna, long known for its Islamist orientation, radical elements have been assassinating members of the local Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party who support a transition to democracy.

In Yemen, where strongman Ali Abdallah Salih was finally ousted in February 2012, rule was transferred to his former vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi. Pursuing a comprehensive strategy of national reconciliation and advocating a federal structure for Yemen to accommodate regional and tribal divisions, Hadi has won a grudging amount of popularity.  While still popular in some quarters, many Yemenis look upon the local Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, al-Islah (Reform) Party, with suspicion given its cooperation with former dictator Ali Abdallah Salih.  This perception has only received greater credibility as Salih has tried to regain some of his former power through working with al-Islah.

In Iraq, the al-Da'wa Islamiya Party is Iraq's oldest Islamist party.  However, one would be hard pressed to find Islamism among its current policies, apart from a sectarianism that targets not only Sunni Arabs and Kurds, but secular and liberal Shi'a as well.  Indeed, aware of Iraqis pragmatic approach to politics, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has subsumed the Da'wa Party under the umbrella of his State of Law Coalition that suggests a focus on law and order rather than a concern with Islamist symbolism.

Why then has Islamism been such a failure?  Can it not be argued that Islamism is actually on the rise if we look to the growth of the al-Qa'ida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, the subordination of the secular Syrian opposition to Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, the activity of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib (North Africa) in Mali and Algeria, and the continued attacks on the Yemeni military and police by al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula?

The problem with this argument is that the radical groups just mentioned alienate the very populations that they purport to represent once these people fall under their so-called Islamic "amirates" (principalities). Preventing young men from watching soccer games in coffee houses, cutting off the fingers of men caught smoking, forbidding women from leaving their homes without a male relative, and stealing from merchants and others in the name of "Islam," has led to a decline in the popularity of such groups.

Further, radical Islamists see moderate Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates as little better than Western "apostates."  As we have recently seen in Syria, radical Islamists - in this case the ISIS and the Nusra Front - spend more time fighting each other than the Ba'thist regime of Bashar al-Asad.  What Western analysts often fail to realize is the extent to which criminal activity is a core component of the daily activities of radical Islamist groups - to pay their fighters, to buy weapons and to take control of lucrative activities, such as oil smuggling in Syria.

These criminal activities come at a cost because they are achieved at the expense of the local populace.  Syrians, Iraqis and others resent the loss of their possessions. They come to see that the imposition of what radical Islamist groups call "Sharia law" as actually no more than a "make it up as they go" policy under the guise of religion that is in really designed to legitimate theft and brutality.

The Islamism discussed in this post is not the "invented tradition" of radicals who, while technically proficient in bomb making and skilled in weapons procurement and criminal activities, often have only the vaguest understanding of Islam.  Usually déclassé, and not having had the opportunity to attend school, they are often unable to read, much less study Islamic texts.

Islamism in the present context is the supposed alternative to authoritarian rule offered by parties such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Tunisian al-Nahda and the Yemeni al-Islah.   Having languished in opposition for years, many Arabs thought these parties would bring a new approach to politics that included a focus on economic development, fighting corruption and reigning in the hated secret police and regime thugs.

Secularists did not have the advantages of Islamist parties that were given the status of the "loyal opposition" by authoritarian regimes such as that of Egyptian president, Husni Mubarak.  Allowing the Brothers limited power in Egypt served as a foil whereby Mubarak could consistently deflect calls for democratization by posing the question: "Do you really want the Muslim Brotherhood to take power?"  Secular forces that initiated the Arab Spring also did not have the organizational structure of the Islamist organizations that benefited from the important institution of the mosque and the Friday prayers.

Islamists also benefited from preferential treatment in relation to the secular and liberal parties which authoritarian regimes viewed as a greater threat to their rule.  In Egypt, liberal and leftist parties were denied licenses to operate. And when the reformist Center Party (Hizb al-Wasat) split from the Muslim Brotherhood in 1996, the Brotherhood worked with the Mubarak regime to prevent it from obtaining a license to operate.

In this context, we should not forget that it was Anwar al-Sadat who released Muslim Brothers from prison after the death of Gamal Abd al-Nasir in September 1970.  Sadat wanted the Brotherhood to perform the dirty work of smashing the pro-Soviet wing of the Nasirist Arab Socialist Union which opposed his rule.  Thus Islamism was legitimized by the state beginning in the early 1970s.

The political tableau presented here is much more complex than the Muslim Brotherhood's simplistic neologism, "Islam is the solution" (Islam al-hall), or the implicit prognostication of many Western analysts that "Islam is inevitable."   In the wake of the unrest of the past 3 years, the Arab world continues to be characterized by widespread ideological fluidity, even confusion, and political indeterminacy.

When asked why they now oppose Mursi and the Brotherhood, Egyptians bitterly complain that he did not address pressing problems while he was president, such as the improving the economy, attacking corruption, and reforming the brutal security police.  Instead, they argue Mursi sought to Islamize Egyptian society and suppress free speech.  What is most striking is the vitriol of deeply religious Egyptians who assert that no Muslim Brother is to be trusted with political power.

Active for 85 years, the Muslim Brotherhood lost almost all its power and influence in less than 12 months.  In an ironic turn of events, given the Brotherhood's opposition to the Center Party, the Salafi Party of Light (Hizb al-Nur) has cooperated with the military junta that deposed Muhammad Mursi and now receives special treatment from the state for its opposition to the Brotherhood.  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - the  more things change, the more they stay the same.

The most effective leaders in the Arab Spring have been the Tunisian secular leadership and the Yemeni leadership of President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi.  In the first instance, Tunisia's leaders have avoided the temptation of lording their victory over their Islamist rivals in the al-Nahda Party and have sought to work with moderate Islamists.  For his part, President Hadi has sought to gradually ease Salih supporters out of the officer corps, reorganize Yemen according to a federal system, and publicly promote a  policy of national reconciliation.  In both cases, political pluralism and respect for diversity have at least achieved a foothold

Democratic transitions in the Arab world will need to conform to three criteria if they are to be successful.  First, they will need to insure personal freedoms, especially freedom of expression, human rights and the rule of law.  Second, they will need to address social justice issues, such as jobs, housing, health care ans education.  Finally, they will need to promote political and cultural pluralism, namely respect for the Other.  Can a democratic Islamism conform to these criteria?  That is a critical but as yet unanswered question in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

In  my next post, I examine the upcoming elections in Iraq, followed by a post in which I argue that the most successful effort at  a democratic transition in the wake of the Arab uprisings will  most likely be that of Tunisia.

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