An Islamist Winter?

While Islamists have prospered from the Arab Spring, they are not dominant. But vigilance is needed to protect the flame of freedom

Features Middle East

Is the Arab Spring morphing into an Islamic Winter? The question is haunting those interested in the outcome of the series of political earthquakes that, from the start of 2011, have shaken most of the 21 member states of the Arab League. Those who remember the initial days of the Arab uprising on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunisia and Tahrir Square in Cairo wonder what happened to the promise of the modern liberal society that was supposed to be about to be born out of the pages of Facebook accompanied by the jingles of mobile phones. Where have all the clean-shaven, jeans-wearing, cappuccino-imbibing young things gone? And where did all these bushy beards and extra-thick hijabs, absent from the early stages of the “revolution”, come from?

To find an answer let us start with the certainties of the situation. First, it is too early to speak of an Arab revolution. Revolutions are baptised as such only after they have happened. What we have in the countries affected by the Arab Spring so far is the promise of a revolution. For the first time in decades almost all Arab societies are in a state of flux. Everywhere, the regimes in place have run out of the energy and imagination needed to keep themselves in power. Arab governing elites are no longer able to respond to the hopes, fears and aspirations of their peoples.

The emergence of modern Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa dates back to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, and then the decolonisation movement that followed the Second. Initially, the Arab elites toyed with the idea of reviving the Islamic caliphate, a dream that haunted ambitious leaders from King Fouad of Egypt to King Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia. However, the reality of the emerging Arab states was something else. These were states created around an army, even when, as was the case in Saudi Arabia and Transjordan, it consisted of a tribal band of irregulars. At the start, almost all the newly created states were monarchies under different names. In Yemen the monarch was called the imam, in Egypt he was the king and in Morocco the sultan.

From the late 1940s onwards, army officers, sometimes using a political party as interface, started to topple the monarchies and developed the military-security state in the name of pan-Arab unity, the “liberation of Palestine” and/or socialism. By the end of the 1960s, eight Arab nations lived under new-model military-security regimes claiming legitimacy based on empty slogans about pan-Arabism and socialism.

Although the Arab Spring has shaken every Arab regime, including monarchies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, its principal target has been the military-security regimes. At the time of writing only three were still in place: Syria, Sudan and Mauritania, all of which were also in various stages of popular revolt.

So, the first certainty is that the Arab model of a military-security regime, often linked to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, has reached its sell-by date. Whatever happens next, it is unlikely that the outdated model will be revived. In Egypt, the remnants of the military-security regime, known as al-foloul (the leftovers) secured less than 2 per cent of the votes in the country’s first free elections. And this despite the fact that the military were still in control through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

The second certainty is that, despite its success in toppling several military-security regimes, the Arab Spring has not produced a recognisable alternative. This may be the first people-based revolt in history that has not created a party to translate its victory into political power. For example, the best-known figures in the Egyptian uprising publicly assert that they do not seek a political career. All they want is to act as “the conscience of the people”, according to the novelist Alaa al-Aswany. The Egyptian elections included the spectacle of pro-democracy groups returning to Tahrir Square to call for a boycott of the polls.

The third certainty is that the Arab Spring has radically changed Arab political discourse. Scores of new or long-forgotten words and phrases have entered the day-to-day lexicon of Arab politics, among them democracy, pluralism, secularism, transparency, accountability and the rule of law. One reason for this may be the fact that, perhaps for the first time, political power in the Arab world has not emerged from royal palaces, army barracks, tribal circles or mosques. The forces that toppled the military-security regimes came from offices, universities, factories and shops, and demonstrated their power in the streets.

The fourth certainty, shaped by the first post-revolt elections held in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, and three post-Saddam elections in Iraq, is that parties with an Islamic flavour are the best organised in the countries concerned, and are thus able to claim a major share, in some cases the lion’s share, in government.

In Iraq, the two wings of the ad-Daawah (The Call) party have led two successive coalition governments with support from the Kurdish parties and the Sadrist movement backed by the Islamic Republic in Iran. In Tunisia, the Islamist an-Nahda (Revival) Party is in talks with two secularist parties to form a coalition government. Under a compromise deal, an-Nahda would get the post of prime minister while the secular parties get the presidency of the republic.

In Morocco, the West’s staunchest North African ally since the 1960s, election results gave the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) the right to head a coalition government for the first time. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, campaigning as the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), won a plurality and, with it, the right to name the prime minister in a coalition government.

By all accounts, if they unite, Islamists might also secure the largest chunk of votes in Libya’s forthcoming elections. Yet talk about an “Islamic Winter” may be premature. To start with, the Islamist parties entered the elections with their flags in their pockets, so to speak. They removed all reference to Islam, or religion in general, from their names and platforms.

In Tunisia, an-Nahda dropped the adjective Islamic (al-Islamiyah) from its name. In Morocco, the old Islamist movement of Sheikh Abdul-Salam Yassin dropped its well-established name to call itself the Justice and Development Party (JDP). In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood contested the election as the Freedom and Development Party. Even the radical Salafists in Egypt rebranded themselves as the an-Nour (Light) Party.  

The Islamists focused their campaigns on economic development, income redistribution and, above all, ending the corruption that has poisoned every Arab state. They steered clear of old Islamist obsessions such as the Israel-Palestine issue, anti-Americanism, vilification of minorities and anti-woman programmes.

The Egyptian and Tunisian Islamists publicly renounced their earlier threats to stop tourism, ban the sale of alcohol and force women to wear the hijab. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood “Supreme Guide” Muhammad Badie even claimed that his movement would try to attract 50 million tourists as opposed to fewer than five million at present.

In Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, again using Iraq as a model, Islamist parties asked that they be judged on the basis of their political platforms rather than religious sensibilities. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood went even further by claiming that, in accordance with the principle of Preaching God and Censuring Evil (amr bi-alma’arouf and nahy an al-munkar) protecting Islamic “values and traditions” was the duty of individuals, not the state.

Unlike what happened in Iran 30 years ago, Arab Islamists shut theologians out of the picture. In Iran’s first presidential election, the candidate of the Shia clerics Hassan Habibi collected less than 5 per cent of the votes. In Egypt, the ulema (theologians) from the Al-Azhar Seminary, the Sunni world’s most prestigious establishment, called for a postponement of elections in unison with the pro-democracy groups in Tahrir Square while the Muslim Brotherhood insisted they should be held on time. Pushing the ulema into the background, Arab Islamists fielded a leadership of academics, engineers, doctors and other professionals, among them many women.

More importantly, perhaps, following the model established in Iraq, the Islamists also agreed to give women a share of parliamentary seats: 50 per cent in Tunisia, 25 per cent in Egypt and 20 per cent in Morocco.

The model for Arab Islamists is the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) that swept to power in 2002 by accepting the secular constitution established by Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. AKP has recruited its front-line leaders, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from among professionals rather than Islamic scholars and theologians.

Despite efforts to hide or at least partially cover their true colours, Arab Islamists have so far failed to win a straight majority in any elections. Nor are they likely to do so any time soon.

In Tunisia, an-Nahda won less than 40 per cent of the votes in a 70 per cent turnout, compared to the Turkish AKP’s 43 per cent in 2002. In Morocco, PJD won 22 per cent in a 45 per cent turnout, securing 107 of the 395 seats in the National Assembly. The low turnout was partly due to the boycott by the February 20 coalition of pro-democracy parties that demanded a new constitution limiting the king’s powers.

In Egypt, the system that provides for two rounds of voting is modelled on that of France. It makes it difficult for small parties to gain seats unless they make a deal with larger parties to secure a number of “reserve constituencies”. The system also makes it difficult to gauge the exact strength of the parties that enter the race as part of a larger bloc of parties. Thus, the Freedom and Justice Party, the political face of the Muslim Brotherhood, campaigned as part of a coalition of 33 parties, groups and associations, most of them avowedly secular. The grouping called itself the Democratic Coalition for the Future of Egypt. With a 62 per cent turnout, the coalition won just 36.6 per cent of the votes, with the best estimates putting the Brotherhood’s core vote at around 22 per cent.

The big surprise was an-Nour’s success. It won 24.4 per cent in the first round of voting. Clearly, the boycott of the election by many pro-democracy groups helped the Islamists secure a larger share of the votes. If we add the bloc of which the Freedom and Justice Party is a member to an-Nour we would have an Islamist-led coalition that would claim 65 per cent of the seats in the new parliament. However, an-Nour leader Imad Abdul-Ghafour has categorically rejected any cooperation with the Freedom and Justice party and its secular allies.

Entering the elections divided, Egypt’s secular parties scored an own goal. A bloc of liberal and leftist parties collected just under 15 per cent. Estimates put the share of another group of smaller parties and associations fighting within the Democratic Coalition for the Future of Egypt at around 14 per cent.

An-Nour leader Abdul-Ghafour has admitted that the decision of so many leaders and activists of the uprising to boycott the poll was “the divine hand helping the believers” in the election. He is right, since Islamists of all shades together collected around 48 per cent of the votes.

In Iraq, Shia Islamist parties have won around 40 per cent of the votes in two general elections. Thus, wherever we have relatively clean elections in an Arab country, up to two-thirds of the electorate vote against Islamist parties, even in countries where Islam makes up around 99.9 per cent of the population like Tunisia, Morocco and Libya. In organisational terms, Arab Islamists are decades ahead of their secular rivals who were never allowed to act as a political force during despotic rule. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 and the Iraqi ad-Daawah in 1955. Salafi organisations in Egypt and elsewhere are even older, their roots traceable to Islamist reform movements in the 19th century. Because they have suffered more than others from decades of despotic oppression, Arab Islamists have also accumulated sympathetic political capital. To most people who wish to register their anger against the fallen despotic regime, the most easily recognisable alternative is that of the Islamists.

The latest elections in Arab countries were focused on bread and butter issues rather than the large abstractions that had dominated Arab politics for decades, such as reviving the caliphate, uniting all Arab countries, and wiping Israel off the map. And almost everywhere, Islamist parties sounded more credible; for decades they have been providing the services and welfare measures that despotic regimes couldn’t or wouldn’t offer to most citizens.

Arab Islamists have also enjoyed massive financial support from oil-rich states, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar. According to estimates, in Tunisia an-Nahda spent twice as much as all pro-democracy parties combined. In Egypt, an-Nour, believed to be sponsored by Qatar, outspent even the Brotherhood by a factor of four to one.

Another factor favoured the Islamists: the absence of forces that had played major roles in Arab politics since the 1940s. Pan-Arab nationalists were nowhere in sight, their prospects wrecked by their identification with repressive regimes, especially in Egypt. The once-powerful Arab Left, diminished by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the conversion of China to capitalism, was almost totally absent. The Arab national-socialist movement, the Baath (Renaissance), was also largely written out of the script because of its identification with Saddam Hussein and the Assads, father and son. And yet nowhere did the Islamists manage to persuade at least half of the electorate to vote for them. Although the goal was wide open, they still could not score.

Even then, Islamists owe part of their victory to the shady deals they made with the military and the remnants of the security services of the fallen despot. In Tunisia, an-Nahda echoed the military’s claim that pro-democracy parties “undermined national security”. In Egypt, the Brotherhood backed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces against protesters in Tahrir Square. In Morocco, the PJD attacked those who called for reducing the powers of the king as “agents of sedition”.

Perhaps because they know that they cannot secure an outright majority in any election, Arab Islamists are opposed to a presidential system in which the head of state is directly chosen by universal suffrage. They also know that it is much harder for pro-democracy parties and groups to come together to form coalitions than it is for Islamists. Instead, Islamists demand a new constitution aimed at creating a British-style system in which the parliament is the centre of power with the prime minister as its executive arm. Here, too, both Turkey and Iraq serve as models for Islamists in the “Arab Spring” countries.

Accepting elections has not been easy for most Islamists who believe in the Islamic system of shura (consultation) under which the caliph or the wali al-amr (the emir or the ruler in charge) decides all matters with advice from the ulema. In Islamic tradition power does not emanate from the people’s will as expressed through elections, a Western tradition. Islamic power derives from bay’ah (fealty) as expressed by the ulema, the notables and tribal leaders. Thus most Islamists enter elections holding their noses. To them, the move represents a major theological-ideological concession to the “Zionist Crusader” political thought developed in the West. Not surprisingly, many radical Islamists consider participation in elections as a tactical move designed to propel them into power. Once in power, they would drop the electoral system and revert to “Islamic” politics.

We should welcome the elections and recognise their results. These provide instant pictures of the state of opinion in countries where fear and silence prevented us from knowing what exactly was going on in the minds of the people. Now we know that parties harping on Islamic themes have not been able to win the support of anything more than a third of the electorate. If one takes into account the average size of the turnouts, Islamists of all shades represent between 20 and 30 per cent of the electorate across the Arab world. And that is in countries where between 85 and 100 per cent of the population are Muslims.

But should we conclude that, as some Islamologists (notably the Frenchman Olivier Roy) suggest, “political Islam” is already dead? Roy bases his argument on the fact that, outside Iran where Islamists are in power, no Islamist party or group dares enter any free elections with an openly Islamist programme.

However, announcing the death of Islamism may also be premature. Decades of surviving under repressive regimes have taught the Arab Islamists the art of kitman or dissimulation. They know how to hide their true colours and bide their time. If it is foolish to overestimate their strength when they are part of a broader picture, it is deadly to underestimate their capacity for doing harm when they seize all levers of power.

In Iran, too, once the Shah had fallen, Ayatollah Khomeini went to Qom ostensibly to resume teaching theology. The future Prime Minister was a French-educated engineer and author of a book on thermodynamics. His government was backed by a coalition of secular parties and groups. Iran boasted a rich spectrum of political parties, from ultra-liberal to Trotskyite, taking in conservative, Communist and social democrat. The post-Shah regime was supposed to be dedicated to eliminating corruption, speeding up economic development and giving the masses a better deal.

All the time, however, the mullahs and their minions were infiltrating the apparatus of the state, placing their people in strategic positions within the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the media, and creating paramilitary squads. They accepted elections on the basis of one man, one vote, once. After the first free elections in January 1980 there were no more elections in any real sense of the term.

Something tremendous has happened in the Arab Spring countries, something that merits being supported and protected. For the first time, almost everyone agrees that political power should come from the people with free pluralist elections as the method of ascertaining the popular will. Claims that power has divine origin and/or dynastic roots have been abandoned. What matters now is to make sure that the elections we have just witnessed in several Arab states do not turn out to be the last of their kind.

Where do we go from here? Like it or not, Islam, or at least what to do with it, is part of the debate. Contrary to common perceptions, Islamists do not offer credible alternatives to the crumbling despotic systems. Nor, as election results have shown, do they have the popular support needed for tackling so great a challenge alone. Nevertheless, even the secular parties do not want to shut Islam out of the promised new life. The problem is that there is no consensus as to what precisely Islam is  and, more importantly, who owns it.

One could describe as minimalists those who acknowledge that Islam has no theory of government and that a revival of the caliphate is no longer an option, so Muslim-majority nations should develop political systems that fit their own needs and aspirations. The Koran does not even contain such words as government, republic, constitution, and politics. However, it is full of detailed rules regarding private life. Thus, what matters is to conduct one’s personal life in an Islamic way, even in a religiously neutral political system.

In this emerging intra-Islamic debate, Turkey, as already noted, is establishing a claim as the minimalists’ standard-bearer. It was the first to support the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and is now the strongest supporter of the revolt against Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad.

Turkish leaders, including prime minister Erdogan, have been the only top officials from Muslim countries to visit Arab Spring nations, receiving red carpet treatment. In public meetings, Erdogan has told Arab audiences that it is possible to have an Islamic society and a secular state.

Turkey itself is an example. Turks top the list of pilgrims to Mecca, and there are twice as many mosques in Turkey as in Iran with a population of the same size. And yet Turkey has had a secular system of government since the 1920s. Erdogan knows what he is talking about. His Justice and Development Party won power by casting itself as a conservative party faithful to a secular republic. Even then, in two successive general elections, it failed to win a straight majority of the votes.

Some Arab Islamists, among them an-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, publicly praise the “Turkish model”. Others, like Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Badie, use the term “civil society” as a code-word instead of the more explosive “secular”. Egyptian Islamists of all shades gave Erdogan a hero’s welcome in Cairo. Saad al-Katatini’s Egyptian Freedom and Justice Party openly acknowledges Erdogan’s AKP as “our model”. Others, including Libya’s Mostafa Abdul-Jalil have coined the oxymoron “Islamic secularism”.

In fact, the first Arab country inspired by the “Turkish model” was Iraq. Since liberation in 2003, it has experienced coalition governments with Islamist and secular parties sharing power within a non-religious system. At present, no one is offering newly-liberated Arabs an openly Islamist programme. However, that is precisely what Iran, a non-Arab nation, insists that Arabs need. In a message marking the Feast of Sacrifice, Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei recently called for an Islamic “power pole” to “end the domination of the American Great Satan”.

To try to prevent the Turks from claiming regional leadership, Khamenei also organised a conference in Tehran under the label “Islamic Awakening”. The conference attracted militants from Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad but no one from Arab Spring groups in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. As Tehran is backing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Syrian pro-democracy groups were also absent.

Unlike Turkish officials, who are everywhere in Arab Spring countries these days, Iranian visitors are conspicuous by their absence. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco do not even have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic. Iran’s foreign minister managed just a ten-hour visit to Libya in November. Even then the excuse was to discuss the fate of Musa Sadr, an Iranian religious functionary, who disappeared in Libya in 1978.

Not wishing to leave Turkey and Iran alone in claiming regional leadership, attempts are underway to develop an “Egyptian discourse” as an alternative view of Islam and its place in politics. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a possible presidential candidate for the Islamic bloc, speaks of “the time Egypt was the lighthouse for Muslims across the globe”.

Because Egypt is home to almost ten million Christians, the largest religious minority in a Muslim country, the “Egyptian discourse” is aimed at creating a model of practical rather than theoretical coexistence. Thanks to the al-Azhar seminary, the new Egypt can claim a position of religious leadership among Sunnis, who account for 85 per cent of Muslims across the globe.

For centuries, Egypt, Turkey (in its Ottoman emanation) and Iran represented the intellectual powerhouses of the Muslim world. Every philosophical school, political movement and heresy in Islam came out of one of the three. In the 20th century, all three toned down their Islamic profile and opted for different styles of Westernisation. That allowed Muslims in the peripheries, including the Arabian Peninsula and India under British rule, to advance unprecedented leadership claims. In the Indian subcontinent, movements such as the Deobandis and Barlevis, both  influenced by Wahhabism, expanded their audiences. In Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, a mixture of oil wealth and fanaticism tried to fill the void created by the absence of Iran, Turkey and Egypt from the Islamic scene.

Now Turkey, Iran and Egypt, each in its own way, are trying to regain their historic positions within Islam. Turkey is trying to tempt the Arabs with its economic success, technological progress and a multiparty democracy that allows full space for religion. The Turkish message is that it is possible to modernise in economic and political domains without losing one’s Islamic beliefs. Turkey’s economic success over the past decade, with annual growth rates of up to 11 per cent, has inspired many Arab Islamists to focus on economic development rather than religious purification.

For its part, Iran is trying to mobilise pent-up resentment against the West by presenting the traditional anti-American shibboleths of the Left in Islamist forms. Iran casts itself as heir to the Soviet Union in challenging “imperialism” led by the American “Great Satan”. According to Khamenei, the Soviet Union failed because it lacked religious faith. In a long letter in 1988, the late Ayatollah Khomeini invited the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to convert to Islam so that his “superpower” could “defeat and eliminate” the US. Now Khamenei sees Iran as the heart of the new “Islamic power pole” which will achieve that goal because it fights for God.

Lacking direct access to Arab Spring countries, Iran is trying to secure a place in the debate through propaganda. It has created two Arabic-language satellite TV channels while financing a number of other TV stations, often through the various branches of its Hizbollah network. Iranian propaganda is banking on the Arabs’ real or imagined desire to see Israel wiped off the map. However, there is no evidence that Israel is at the centre of Arab concerns at the moment.

 It is too early to guess the impact of Egypt’s return to the Islamic scene. However, in Arab Spring nations, Egypt has the advantage of the Arab card. For more than 150 years, many Arabs have dreamed of a modern Arab state capable of peacefully competing with Western nations without relinquishing its Islamic identity. If post-Mubarak Egypt offers that, it would have a strong claim to regional leadership.

Experiments in the past four decades have given the term “Islamic state” a bad taste. Almost no one wants the “Islamic Emirate” which the Taliban imposed on Afghanistan. Nor does anyone seek the Khomeinist model of rule by mullahs known as Walayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Cleric). Nor are Mauritania, Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, four nations that call themselves Islamic republics, inspiring models for newly-liberated Arabs.

The entry of Islamist-inspired parties into Arab parliaments and governments should be regarded as their inclusion in systems that, for decades, they denounced as Western-inspired and thus anathema to Islam. The first democratic experiment of the Arabs does not represent a victory for Islamists but rather their implicit admission that the caliphate cannot be revived and that their old slogans such as “The Koran is Our Constitution” or “Islam is the Solution” have become themes for stand-up comedians in Cairo and Tunis.

History is not written in advance and the Arab Spring is not morphing into an Islamist Winter. What follows it could be a summer of social discontent, economic crisis and, graver still, political failure — all inevitable risks involved in discarding the evil heritage of despotism. As Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and hopefully soon Syria, contemplate a different future through a historic window of opportunity, everything seems possible. However, if Arabs are not vigilant in guarding the flame of newly-won freedoms, the demons of political and/or religious despotism, defeated but not dead, could return to extinguish it.