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Debate: Egypt's events will force Islamists to adapt - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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To begin, it is important to emphasize that it is very difficult to use the recent developments in Egypt as an indicator of the strength of Islamic currents after the Arab Spring revolutions. Following those events, hasty analyses that rushed to declare the “end of political Islam” in the Arab world did not fully consider four examples that contradicted this conclusion: the June 1952 coup in Egypt that led to the near eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s 1987 coup in Tunisia, the Turkish army’s coup against Erbakan, and the Salvation Front’s win in Algeria. These four events did not mark the end of political Islam—contrary to the expectations of many researchers. Instead, it was strengthened and eventually became one of the strongest forces in the politics of several Arab states.

It is difficult to evaluate the situation in Egypt and to predict the outcome, mostly because of the speed of events and the complex politicking going on throughout Egyptian society. But a basic reading of the actions of Islamic currents that have power in the Arab region indicate that a handful of factors will determine what happens next:

The first factor is the experiences of the various movements in the Arab region, which depends, for example, on the nature of the domestic political scene and the key figures within it. Take Morocco, where Islamists are running the government in a monarchical system that constitutionally grants the king immense privileges. This differs markedly from the Tunisian example, as that country is ruled by three political groups with different intellectual and political frames of reference.

The Egyptian example is different from those of Morocco and Tunisia because of the Islamists’ position in power and the heightened influence of the military in the political domain. (And that is to put aside the differences in political geography that mean that international players have more weight in Egyptian decision-making.) There is another difference, too: each of these groups is rooted in a different intellectual tradition, especially with regard to how they distinguish between politicians and preachers. This has heavily impacted their respective political mindsets. The Moroccan groups, for example, chose to differentiate between religious orators and politicians, whereas the Ennahda movement in Tunisia maintained full integration of its religious and political units. As for the Egyptian Freedom and Justice Party, it is a mere political wing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The second factor relates to the different options available to Islamic movements in handling the post-Arab Spring period, and the way that they chose to approach the state structure in particular. So the Moroccan Justice and Development Party chose to forgive and forget when navigating the new political landscape, to reform while maintaining stability and to not touch state institutions or alter their functions. The Ennahda movement took a different path, adopting revolutionary attitudes more fully—as reflected in the demands for political isolation of former Ben Ali regime members. They took this course until they were forced to offer concessions in the recent government reshuffle, when they took decisions that brought them slightly closer to the route the Justice and Development Part of Morocco is taking.

The Brotherhood in Egypt appeared very hesitant, and it was wavering between going forward and going backward in administering the state, as shown in its handling of the judiciary. As a result, it earned the hostility of numerous state institutions.

The third factor is the way the political elite are handled. Both Tunisia’s Ennahda Party and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party chose to enter into alliances with different political factions. Ennahda fortified its political position through its alliance with different intellectual and political trends, and the Moroccan group entered into alliances with political dissidents, including leftists. The Egyptian Brotherhood, in contrast, only entered into alliances with other parts of the Islamic current. This caused its isolation from secular and liberal political powers.

The fourth factor is the role that the international community plays in local events, and also the level of contradiction in international players’ approaches to the region. In all three examples, the ruling Islamic powers chose to reassure foreign governments and interested parties, going so far as to protect foreign interests in some cases. But the Brotherhood failed to understand the requirements of political geography and its effect on domestic politics—and they especially failed to grasp that allowing other, non-Islamic groups into government would help stave off or minimize international intervention in Egypt’s affairs.

The nature of the political discourse and political practices of the Islamic current is the the fifth factor. While all three of the groups—Tunisian, Moroccan and Egyptian—have at least attempted to lessen the prominence of their Islamic identity and values in their discourse in favor of more typical political rhetoric, the Muslim Brotherhood largely failed in this endeavor. The tension between religion and politics in the Egyptian group caused both factions with different political leanings and international powers to distrust any democratic project with Islamists at its head.

From these five factors, we can see that the Islamists’ future in each of these three countries will depend on which course each movement chooses next. They have three basic examples to emulate. The first is taking the Turkish approach to reform, which could mesh nicely with the experiences of both the Justice and Development Party and Ennahda, especially if they focus more on reform and stewardship of state institutions. The second approach involves rethinking the leadership, and encouraging evolution from old leadership styles to new. To take the Turkish example again, the Justice and Development Party’s emergence from the Refah Party under new leadership and with new political goals is illustrative of this approach.

The third scenario stands in complete contradiction to the others. In this potential future, the attempt at overthrowing the Islamists in Egypt fails, large political and civil powers choose to defend the group’s legitimacy, and political initiatives would end up restoring constitutional and democratic legitimacy (if only partially). The Egyptian Brotherhood would be in a good position if this were to happen, because it could broadcast its revolutionary experience across the Arab region. This third scenario would rival the Turkish example in its resistance against those it has long described as the “deep state.”

What my assessment of the future comes down to is that reform, despite the delayed progress and the gravity of the challenges it is facing, will likely happen throughout the Arab world. These reforms will be a catalyst for a profound reimagining of the Brotherhood organization. It must completely redefine the relationship between its religion and its politics, and it must rebuild its political goals from scratch in a way that fully addresses the situation in Egypt and the wider world. It has so far failed to do these things.

Essentially, what this means is that political Islamic movements will not fail or retreat. Rather, they will adapt and reform to suit their circumstances, especially if they manage to retain the large following they currently enjoy.

The counterpoint to this piece can be read here.

Bilal Al-Talidi

Bilal Al-Talidi

Bilal Al-Talidi is a Moroccan researcher specializing in Islamic movements and author of The Islamists and the Arab Spring.

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