The Mythical Islamist Tide

The Mythical Islamist Tide

Why the current balance of power in the post-Arab Spring Mideast may not last long.

Earlier this month, as a secular, liberal political coalition swept the polls in Libya, some Western observers hailed a “break in the Islamist tide” of post-Arab Spring electoral outcomes. Following victories for Islamists in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, it seemed stunning to find a Western-educated political scientist, Mahmoud Jibril, suddenly at the helm in Tripoli. Other observers, by contrast, noted the exceptional circumstances of Jibril’s triumph: not only had he achieved fame and acclaim in Libya beforehand, during the country’s revolution, by leading the rebel government in Benghazi, he also enjoyed staunch backing from his native Warfalla tribe, one of the most powerful tribal confederations in the country. These factors have been used to suggest that the Libyan outcome is an anomaly—and that a generation of Islamist-led politics still lies ahead in the broader region.

In a region as variegated and complex as the Arab world, it’s always perilous to make generalizations about “tides” rising and falling. And yet, even taking into account the many contrasts among post-Arab Spring governments and populations, there is reason to question the conventional wisdom that Islamists will hold power across the region for years. This is not to say that a sweeping tide is simply turning. It is instead to emphasize that prospects for sustained Islamist government in the Arab world were tenuous to begin with—and that recent Islamist miscalculations, combined with new countermeasures by their opponents, make the road ahead even more difficult for these parties than it needed to be.

Morocco is a country now in the midst of a major political transition of its own. Thirteen months ago, King Mohammed VI introduced a new constitution calling for an elected head of government to share power with the monarchy. The Islamist Party of Justice and Development swept elections in November and formed a government in January. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where Islamists had been banned from party politics for decades, in Morocco Islamists have been engaged in party politics for decades—enabled to do so by the kingdom in exchange for forswearing extremist ideals and terrorism. Nonetheless, since taking power, the PJD leadership has proved surprisingly lacking in coherent political and economic policies. The party is yet to advance a substantive plan to fight corruption. Meanwhile, calls to impose conservative Islamist mores on the society have proved unpopular and also are potentially economically hazardous to tourism. If Morocco’s current Islamist leadership loses in the next elections, it presumably will be replaced by a comparatively secular leadership.

But Moroccans only can make such a presumption because our country has something its neighbors lack: a king to guarantee the rotation of power. It isn’t possible in Morocco, as it may be elsewhere in the region, for Islamists to dissolve or subvert the democratic process.

Over the past twelve years, King Mohammed VI has been nurturing the institutions of civil society that provide fortification and meaning to electoral democracy. The king also maintains control of the army as well as the status of ranking religious authority—so that neither the pulpit nor guerrilla warfare can be used to stymie the popular will. By dint of his popularity with the population and the monarchy’s three-hundred-year pedigree, the king enjoys a mandate to maintain these authorities and play this safeguard role for years to come.

Less Stable Neighbors

Morocco’s stable monarchy contrasts sharply with the situation in the former military republics of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In these countries—and, for that matter, in Syria, Algeria and Yemen—civil-society institutions were systematically mowed down by the ruler. And while in Egypt, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi claims to be playing a similar role of “safeguard” in checking the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood, he does not enjoy the legitimacy or the credibility of Morocco’s monarch—whatever his intentions may be.

Islamists face an uphill battle in the former military republics for numerous other reasons. In Tunisia, the ruling Islamist Ennahda party has learned that the unelected “deep state”—the bureaucracy, the security sector and so on—is deeply resistant to any efforts to penetrate or change its institutional culture. Ennahda’s newly appointed mid-level functionaries have been facing suspicion, discrimination and isolation in the workplace and have described themselves as feeling “embattled” even though the upper echelons of government support them. Meanwhile, Ennahda’s ruling parliamentary bloc has proved wobbly. One of its two “troika” coalition partners splintered earlier this summer, in part over ideological differences. Nor were Ennahda’s prospects in the forthcoming autumn elections ever strong to begin with. Tunisian political analysts generally agree that the UGTT—the country’s largest labor union—enjoys more grassroots support as a movement than Ennahda. The UGTT declined to field a candidate in last year’s elections. By consequence, its constituents formed dozens of parties of their own. The “union vote” was divided among more than one hundred newly minted parties. Should the UGTT field its own candidate this fall, he or she would have a strong chance of winning.

In Egypt, the deep state’s resistance to Islamist encroachment is clear. And for the moment, at least, the military’s attempt to weaken the Brotherhood enjoys tacit acquiescence from its American backers. In order for Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to challenge the military’s domination, he must build an unlikely coalition of supporters in and out of government. Pro-Western Egyptian liberals will have to be enlisted to make the case to Western powers to stop supporting Egyptian military hegemony. But for the moment, the Egyptian liberal community is not inclined to grant the Brotherhood this type of support. The Brotherhood also must win friends among the military elite in order to divide that powerful, opaque community. This is an extremely difficult proposition.

In Syria, second only to Egypt in geostrategic importance, it is widely assumed that Islamists would dominate a post-Assad government. But shrewd analysts in the region think otherwise. In contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, where regimes fell within weeks and young demonstrators were usurped politically by veteran Islamists, Syria’s drawn-out, bloody battle has created a different reality: young people have been forced to organize militarily. They are building their own leadership structures, along with the sort of “company loyalty” that only comes of fighting together for months, if not years. Interviews with some of the young revolutionaries suggest many are not oriented toward Islamist ideologies. Whether or not this is so, it is clear that they will not easily be pushed aside by Muslim Brotherhood activists returning from exile in Europe.

These disparate elements add up to the distinct possibility that Tunisia and Morocco may soon see a second turnover in power, from Islamists to a secular alternative. Meanwhile, Egypt’s Islamists do not have the opportunity to rule absolutely, and Syrians are charting a different political path. Whether this means a “tide” is receding is a matter of perspective—but perhaps the tide never rose so high to begin with.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur as well as the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and on the board of directors of Search for Common Ground in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.

Image: mmoneib