Were the Islamists Wrong-Footed by the Arab Spring?

By François Burgat, CNRS, Institut de recherches et d’études sur le monde arabe et musulman (translated by Patrick Hutchinson)

* This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Islamist Politics” conference, January, 24, 2014. 

The situation and the current resources of the Islamist trends in both the Arab and the Western political arenas have been deeply impacted, in more than one sense of the word, by three years of unabated proactive Arab Spring protest movements. After decades of a relative status quo, the overthrow of several leaders, highly symbolic of the long winter of authoritarian clamp-down, plus the rise to positions of power of parties close to the Muslim Brothers, and the abrupt military counter-revolution staged in Egypt, have all contributed to set in motion or indeed to accelerate processes of deep change. The intention of the following paper is limited to attempting to briefly capture the latter, with special focus on the analysis of the archetypal trajectories of Tunisia and Egypt.

The Cracks in the Armor of Authoritarianism

The characteristics of the political systems born in the wake of the national revolutions consisted in their a priori denial of any form of institutionalized opposition, and, from the eighties on, more particularly targeting the Islamist successors of the Arab left. This widely shared habit of holding elections with a view, not to renewing the elites in power, but only those in the opposition, on analysis however brackets fairly widely contrasted national realities.

In Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia, in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya, and in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria — where mere belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood made one liable to capital punishment — the Islamist opposition forces were purely and simply consigned to exile. In Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, the system tolerated their presence, under associative or even partisan form. Simultaneously, they promoted other religious groups (quietist Salafi or Sufi) in order to eventually weaken the more politically active — and therefore more deeply feared — movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In the name of religion, the Salafis set their faces against all forms of political commitment, while the Sufis accepted to grant electoral caution to the authorities in power. These highly restrictive conditions attached to the legal recognition of the Islamist oppositions, compounded by some very sophisticated forms of electoral engineering and by large-scale vote-rigging, have meant that, invariably, the polls have reflected a much diminished presence when set against real potential for mobilization. On the only two occasions on record when internal dissensions did indeed issue onto free electoral processes — the Islamic Salvation Front in December 1991 in Algeria and in Hamas January 2006 in Palestine — resounding victories for Islamist parties were only to encounter now all too familiar diplomatic and military patterns of response, both on the part of the losers at the ballot box and of their influential western allies. What is more, whether in Egypt, in Morocco, or in Jordan, the escapees who managed to overcome these first two obstacles, have had to endorse participation in legislative bodies which, whatever else may be thought of them are excluded from any real arena of political decision-making. The latter has been confined to inner circles — the King of Morocco’s personal advisers, groups of military “backroom boys” in Algeria, and “the Presidential circle” in Egypt) — despite the much hyped facade of “pluralism” and remain far beyond the sway of any of the electorate’s putative mood swings.

The Recurrent Mirage of the “Decline of the Islamists”

This absence of any institutional presence on the part of Islamist opposition forces (or those of any other political hue) during the initial sequence of the protest movements, was for a time considerably over-interpreted, both by journalists and many researchers. The hierarchy of the Muslim Brotherhood, immediately arraigned by the regime as the initiators and the main culprits for the revolt, could more correctly be seen as having delayed the moment when it would come under fire as the number one target of repression by prudently retarding full commitment to the revolt. For several weeks, this low visibility of the Islamists was to be rashly interpreted as a sign of the historical collapse of their capacity to mobilize. Soon enough, however, polls and electoral ballots unveiled a more checkered reality — one that was a far cry from any such an umpteenth proclamation of “Islamist decline.” Differing dramatically from what was long allotted to Islamists by widely rigged ballot boxes, Islamists emerged as the dominant political trend in both Tunisia and Egypt. The only real surprise was the weight of the Salafi component, as well as by the extreme flexibility of its strategy, intermittently not always supportive of the opposition (in the case of Egypt, if not in Tunisia).

Diversification, the Price Tag Attached to Liberalizatiom 

The breaking of the authoritarian stranglehold unleashed, when it didn’t merely legitimize, a double onwards thrust; first and foremost, one of self-assertion and, then, of diversification, at times to the point of scissiparity, across the entire trend. While the Muslim Brothers unsurprisingly took stock of the situation to finally reassert their clout on the political playing field, the relative weight of their Salafi “quietist” challengers — an electoral constituency until this day numerically unassessed, unknown — turned out to be unexpectedly significant. This abrupt bleep on the screen of a massive “Islamist” presence highlights the over simplistic character of a concept, Islamism. The latter concept turns out to be all the more wanting in the precision and functionality that has been spectacularly highlighted by the diversity of players whom “Islamism” attempts to embrace. This assertion of an important, very literalist Salafi trend among its ranks once again questions the relevance of the functionality of part of the “post-Islamism” thesis.

This serial breakdown in the patterns of authoritarian stranglehold subsequently brought the middle-of-the-way component of this general movement — namely the Muslim Brotherhood — face to face with the demands, challenges, and setbacks of practical policymaking at a particularly tough conjuncture characterized by both suddenly soaring expectations on the part of the population and strong counter-offensives on the part of the supporters of the former regimes. In this context, the stance of the quietist Salafis has itself evolved towards diversification: One of their trends reneged on their initial refusal of all political action and launched out onto the electoral marketplace. They have not in fact granted priority to solidarity with the “Islamist camp” but rather to their longstanding rivalry with the Muslim Brothers, once the latter were in office.

The Jihadi scene has been diversifying just as fast: Some of its members — among them the emblematic Egyptian Abud Zummer, at the end of a long jail term in the aftermath of Sadat’s assassination — have chosen to give credence to the new institutional system at the time under construction and to stand by it. Others have defiantly maintained an arms-length relationship with the system and refused to board the train of legalist integration. Progressively, the latter group have chosen to re-indorse their option for armed struggle both in Tunisia (Ansar al-Sharia) in spite of the fact that they were enjoying a climate more liberal than ever and more “logically” in Egypt following the dramatic endorsement of their theses exemplified by Morsi’s destitution (i.e., the blatant betrayal of democratic promise by an alliance of the military, the liberals and the West).

The Ordeal of Power; Between Inexperience, Isolation and Counter-Revolutionary Resilience

The Muslim Brothers found themselves, under varying circumstances, propelled into situations where they had to come into power. In Egypt the Brotherhood failed to convince other trends of the opposition — whether Islamist or from the secular left — to join the ranks of the government. Though not elected at the same massive scale in Tunisia, the Brotherhood there has been forced (perhaps better put as “had the luck to be” forced) to share power with two tiny secular formations. Indeed, the Takkatol and the CPR have both taken on essential roles (from the presidency of the Republic to that of the Constituent Assembly) in heading off the hostile reactions generated — both on the domestic scene and equally in the Arab and Western arenas — by the “Islamists’ victory.”

A world away from the dominant culturalist discourse of virulent “anti-Islamist” players, the nature of the challenges which the winners at the ballot-box have had to overcome show evidence, on hindsight, of being less a result of the downsides of their Islamist “political affiliation” than that of the exceptionally demanding conjuncture of the period of their rise to power. The case of Libya — where the recurrence of multiple tensions can by no means be attributed to an Islamist government, the Muslim Brothers having, for various reasons, failed in July 2012 to get themselves elected to the General National Congress — reinforces this assessment of the various “springtime” transitions, one which can hardly be said to be widely held.

The revolutionary exemplarity of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda victories over the heads of leaders considered to be irreplaceable fixtures has fed into the active hostility of neighboring Arab regimes — from Morocco to Algeria to the United Arab Emirates, which has been regularly accused, including by Tunisia’s President, of funding the opposition –under threat from democracy’s rising clamor. Saudi Arabia, ranking its adversaries by order of priority, has supported the Syrian Muslim Brothers (or the regime of Bahrain) against regimes or against opposition forces perceived above all as allies of its main enemy, Iran. But simultaneously in Egypt, Saudi Arabia has clearly mobilized against the Islamist winners at the polls, while denying  any support at all to Islamists in Tunisia.

In Western seats of power, it was indeed to be their (“Islamist”) political shade of hue, which was to bring down a permanent inquisitorial suspicion on these “nouveaux riches” of the springtime ballot boxes. After having undergone a double setback in Tunisia and in Egypt, France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs — long the diplomatic spearhead of the “struggle against Integrism,” and therefore, the thuriferary of the most appalling dictatorships — did an abrupt about turn. France recognized, albeit late in the day, the electoral victory of the Islamists. Then took the initiative, flanked by the United States — and not without success  of supporting a revolutionary makeover that implied consenting to considerably watering down its long-standing anti-Islamist creed — a policy which it implemented as from April 2011.

This substantial concession, however, was destined to be rapidly revised. First of all in Syria, where the rapid build-up of radical Islamist factions, expediently encouraged by the regime itself, has led to a real enough, but hastily disclaimed, disengagement from the armed Syrian opposition (manifested to an unprecedented degree by the Russian-U.S. agreement on the destruction of chemical weapons). Subsequently in Egypt, where France, on a par with the E.U. and the United States, unflinchingly condoned the rough ride given to the process of democratic transition (“a mere process of majoritarism,” as it was portrayed by the E.U. commissioner in charge of Exterior Action), which carried the Islamists into power.

Domestically, the Brothers first and foremost paid the price for their long exclusion from power. They found themselves having to face up to the fact that technological expertise had, for several decades, been progressively concentrated in the hands of the political clientele of the fallen regimes.

The resilience of these failed regimes was to be made manifest by the more or less overt show of resistance put up by the state apparatuses (Interior, Army, Judiciary), but also by both the public and private press, which was more or less discreetly to set about undermining the elected government’s credibility. The survivors of the failed regimes were further very early on to contract more or less explicit alliances with the opposition forces, whether liberal (Tamarod, in Egypt), or trade-union and left wing (UGTT or Front de Sauvegarde in Tunisia). This convergence was all the more smoothly operated that the relations between Islamists and left-wing opposition, long passion-fraught, deteriorated rapidly. An elusive oppositional solidarity, in filigree at the 1990s hour of promising meetings between “Nationalists and Islamists,” was soon to give way to mere electoral rivalry. The general collapse of the non-Islamist oppositions, of the “anti-Islamist” left-wing factions in particular, drove them to seek convergence with the former holders of power, including occasionally not being loath to play openly into the hands of the counter-revolution.

The Counter-Revolutionary Paradigm

The success of Egypt’s counter-revolution has profoundly reconfigured the situation resulting from the first two periods of the “springtime” onward thrust. The players, whether national, regional or international, have opened an entirely new phase in their political trajectory. Egypt’s Muslim Brothers have been thrust, apparently seamlessly, from power into clandestinity and their abrupt fate can hardly have left their counterparts in Tunisia and further afield in the region indifferent. Under close surveillance, the Salafis are embarking on a trajectory of support for a regime whose growing lack of popularity will inevitably have major repercussions on the base of their own constituency. The military upholders of the regime have renewed acquaintance with the root-and-branch eradication shortcuts of the authoritarian era. What is more they are eager to capitalize on the hostility generated in a certain number of their former supporters by the Brothers’ term in power. The West also seems to have ebbed back towards its former long-standing posture: that of a “pragmatic” placing on the back burner of some its own democratic principles, to the extent of passing for blatantly opportunistic.

Jihadists are witnessing their darkest forebodings concerning the credibility of the democratic option of their Muslim Brotherhood challengers being enacted by the Egyptian military and their supporters to a degree hitherto undreamt of. In Egypt, but also in Syria — and no doubt in a good number of other countries where the bottom line of the bill to be footed for the Muslim Brothers’ scrupulous legalism is currently being taken on board — recruitment to their ranks is exponentially on the rise.

François Burgat is a senior researcher at CNRS, Institut de recherches et d’études sur le monde arabe et musulman (IREMAM) in Aix-en-Provence, France and principal investigator of When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World. He is the author of Islamism in the Shadow of al Qaeda (2008), Face to Face with Political Islam (2002), and The Islamic Movement in North Africa (1997). He is editor of Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in the Middle East and Europe (2002). He is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.


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