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Is the era of Islamists coming to an end?

For decades, the media has forecast the 'end of the Islamists'. Amid recent developments in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, has this prediction finally come to pass?
Rached Ghannouchi, head of Islamist movement Ennahda (AFP)

At the dawn of the Arab Spring in 2011, just months before Islamists sailed to victory in Egypt’s presidential election, the leading lights of French “jihadology” had forecast the collapse of the Islamist camp, arguing that it had discredited itself by its supposed absence from the protest movement.

Today, the cue to repeat the claim of Islamist decline is a simultaneous shift in three radically different countries: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. A crushing election defeat last month for Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) supposedly echoed the difficulties faced in Tunisia by the Islamist party Ennahda, in the face of President Kais Saied’s authoritarian offensive.

In Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, Islamists have paid the price for their proximity to power

To this, some analysts seek to add the poor showing in Algeria’s June parliamentary elections of the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP, or the “Algerian Hamas”) - or even that Islamists are supposedly absent from the ranks of the highly popular hirak protest movement.

Granted, for once, the Cassandras are not all drawn from the cohort of automatic Islamist-bashers. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi himself has reportedly said: “The problem of the Islamists is that they are appreciated in opposition, and hated as soon as they are in power.” Indeed dozens of party members have resigned, openly citing their dissatisfaction.

In the long term, each passing season does indeed bring us nearer to the time when “Islamism” will no longer be the reference point that decisively organises the political stages of North Africa and the Middle East.

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Rocket of decolonisation

The conception I have proposed on the rise of Islamists is as follows: they first emerged to condemn the excessive colonial, then imperial, western cultural presence in the Muslim world, and then the generalised authoritarianism of the first generation of independence leaders. They are a product of reactive mobilisation, but the key ingredient of their mobilising capacity was circumstantial. As such, their resources were destined to weaken in parallel with the weakening of the West’s intrusive omnipresence, whether directly or through the proxy of authoritarian regimes.

If Islamism is indeed the third stage of the rocket of decolonisation, as I have argued elsewhere, there will necessarily come a time when formerly colonised societies will reach a certain “weightlessness” vis-a-vis their western alter-egos. The long- and wrongly-heralded era of “post-Islamism” may then begin. But are we there yet?

The PJD has forgotten that in Morocco, only the palace governs
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In Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, Islamists have paid the price for their proximity to power. Islamists from Tunisia’s Ennahda, to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-linked Freedom and Justice party, have certainly committed errors that must be taken into account. These were tied to their inexperience in government.

Islamist trends everywhere feature highly ordinary generational divides, which themselves fuel the dynamics of renewal. Almost all the Cassandras fail to recognise the increasing popularity of such movements as Algeria’s Rachad, as demonstrated by the obsessive efforts of the political and military establishment to criminalise its image. Rachad is, in many ways, an extension and deep renewal of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which showed impressive mobilising potential in 1990. Equating the weakness of the “Algerian Hamas” with the end of that mobilisation thus presents an analytical impasse. 

Similarly, analysing the PJD’s death notice as part of a generalised Islamist decline is coherent only if one can show that the same holds for the Islamist movement Al Adl Wal Ihsane, founded by Abdessalam Yassine. Clearly, this is far from being the case. As opposed to their PJD rivals, the “lions” of Al Adl Wal Ihsane have so far refused to become the “lapdogs” of the Moroccan regime

Frontline of opposition

It is important to recall that the overwhelming majority of the difficulties and setbacks experienced by Islamist parties, like the errors they have committed, do not relate to the “Islamicity” of their political agenda. Far more simply, they relate to the fact that, for various historical reasons, these parties have for decades constituted the frontline of opposition to regimes that are both deeply rooted in their respective national contexts, but also blindly supported by their counterparts and the West.

Throughout the region, the relative weakening of those who have peacefully confronted the powers-that-be has one common denominator: they never truly tasted the “roses” of proximity to power, but suffered from its “thorns”. Through attrition and, sometimes, through being discredited, they have paid the price for being associated with unpopular policies of which they were not the true initiators.

MSP leader Abderrezak Mokri speaks in Algiers on 16 June 2021 (AFP)
MSP leader Abderrezak Mokri speaks in Algiers on 16 June 2021 (AFP)

Can the weak electoral performance of Algeria’s MSP seriously be considered a sign of the “end of the road” for the Muslim Brotherhood, and of a generalised Islamist decline in North Africa? Such analyses curiously set aside the fact that, from the day the MSP was founded to counter the popularity of the FIS, it has been in the hands of Algeria’s intelligence services. 

Those who fail to acquire, or allow themselves to be robbed of, oppositional credibility are punished. This was always the case for the “Algerian Hamas”, which managed to dupe only the regime-backed media and some less-discerning supporters - and in a very different context, it has also become the case for Morocco’s PJD. 

As Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet magnificently summarised for Middle East Eye: “In Morocco, governing is done by the palace alone - and sharing even the slightest shred of power with opposition groups is utterly out of the question.”

More than “the Islamists”, then, what Moroccan voters violently rejected were the Islamist underlings of many unpopular political decisions, from dismantling public services to normalising with Israel. They did so with the help of the monarchy, which amended the electoral law, and clearly wanted to be rid of its PJD underlings.

Unnatural alliance

In Tunisia, the tensions within Ennahda arise from a plurality of factors. Aiming to avoid the return of a Ben-Ali-era autocracy, Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly set up a highly inclusive and demanding parliamentary system. In this context, Ghannouchi’s extreme pragmatism saw him opt for an alliance with Qalb Tounes, one of the parties that more or less emerged directly from the ancien regime

This unnatural alliance was exacerbated by the strategy  of “the worse, the better” that Saied deliberately adopted as soon as he was elected - by 73 percent of the vote, even while he was a total unknown. But he was hamstrung by a constitution that deprived him of the type of powers that matched his ambitions.

Islamist movements were very quickly targeted by a hostility from their European and western interlocutors that their 'leftist' rivals would likely not have provoked so systematically

Critics accused Saied of blocking the creation of a constitutional court and opposing almost all attempts at reform. Paradoxically, this atmosphere of political paralysis that was very largely Saied’s creation eventually provided him with a window of opportunity to launch his July “coup”, discreetly but powerfully backed by the Emirati leaders of the Arab counter-revolution.

Unquestionably, while in power, Islamists - in Egypt, Tunisia or even Morocco - made mistakes. But the overwhelming majority of these errors were tied to their lack of experience in governing, the weakness of their international networks, and their naive belief in certain legalist principles promoted by their western environment.

The West hastened to betray these principles by backing the terrible repression that targeted Islamists in Egypt after the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi. Indeed, in the context of the Arab Spring, Islamist movements were very quickly targeted by a hostility from their European and western interlocutors that their “leftist” rivals would likely not have provoked so systematically.

The errors made by these movements had little to do with the “Islamist” dimension of their political beliefs. Rather the recurrent and common flaw of almost all Islamist experiences of power appears to be that they have exercised power without ever truly holding the levers of power, whether military, economic, media or judicial.

Regional chessboard

In the Sahel as in the Middle East, jihadism remains an important component of the regional chessboard. With the Taliban’s resounding victory in Afghanistan, it appears that this “radical Islam”, whose defeat has so often been announced, has taken another country out of the West’s direct sphere of influence.

The final error, of which the jubilation of French media at the (supposed) “defeat of the Islamists” is a part, is to believe that the political differential between Europe and North Africa is tied only to the “Islamicity” of the political vocabulary of the Islamist trend - in other words, that an alternative, post-Islamist political generation would accept unquestioningly the full range of bad behaviour from the West.

Absolutely nothing grounds this claim. Most of the “anti-imperialist” sentiments that the Islamist generation proclaims today mirror what the “Arab nationalist” or even “leftist” oppositions proclaimed in their time.

Is the era of post-Islamism on the way? Doubtless, but it is in no rush.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

François Burgat is Emeritus Research Director at France’s CNRS (IREMAN Aix-en-Provence). Among other institutions, he ran the French Middle Eastern Institute between 2008 and 2013 and the French Centre for Archaeology and Social Sciences in Sanaa from 1997 to 2003. An expert on Islamist movements, his latest book is titled 'Understanding Political Islam' by Manchester University Press (2019)
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