By A.E. Kadoussi
At the outset of the Arab spring, most observers rushed to the assumption that it was the end of ideology. They failed to behold the Islamist spree coming to reconfigure a historic moment. The resurgence of Islamism was detrimental to the wishful predictions of western and Arab politicians; “they don’t have majority support in Egypt” Obama once foretold referring to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB); “they will not be more than maybe 20% of the Egyptian people” rejoined El Baradai –a presumed future statesman at the time. The same was said about Annahda in Tunisia, the JDP in Morocco, and the sister factions in the other Arab countries. The recent legislative elections, however, gave Islamists an uncontested majority in parliament with over 27% in Morocco, 41% in Tunisia and 72% in Egypt and allowed them thus to take over the levers of executive authority.
Most frustrated were the leftists, liberals, and the green grassroots revolutionaries as they saw Islamists who did not instigate the uprisings reap the fruits of the disarray. For some, it was a conspicuous political hijack that might empty the revolution from its meaning. For others, it was simple takeover determined by contextual or historical circumstances. Anyway, this article ponders the issue within a framework of understanding that comprises both organic and environmental underpinnings. The first include historical, societal, organizational, discursive, and strategic indices stemming from the Islamist movements themselves; whereas the second refer to local, regional, and global competitors and stakeholders.
The ten reasons proposed below do not attempt to set an exhaustive demystification of the issue as much as they point to a few landmarks that until now have not been considered in the endeavour to explain the issue without falling into ideological projections and subjective value judgments.
A history of marginalisation
More than any other group, Islamists underwent systematic muting and oppression. They were denied the opportunity to operate politically without much surveillance and persecution under a handful of justifications ranging from their being regressive, fundamentalist, and terrorist. Political mobilization against them chased them ever since their first attempt to organize politically in the late twenties of the last century, particularly in Egypt with the MB whose precepts swiftly spread in the Middle East and North Africa.
Their central role in the fight against European colonizers was quickly disregarded after the Arab nation-states gained independence. In the postcolonial era they were a perpetual nuisance for governments which in turn used their coercive apparatuses to emasculate them and tether their movements. Some were followed and persecuted, others detained and tortured; others exiled in Europe and North America; and a lot of them were executed.
The phobia against Islamists was structurally instilled into the popular mindset within the Arab nation-states and outside. However, by allowing them no space to operate politically and surveying their gatherings and actions, the Arab states have in fact ironically facilitated their unequivocal growing credibility among the Arabs who reached a state of utter distrust in their rulers and been sick and tired of their unfulfilled promises.
Effective community service
Having been tethered politically, the Islamist groups have been rigorous operators in social service and preaching. They have been a vital resource for shelter and income for the wide downtrodden sectors of society. Targeting the most underprivileged neighbourhoods and rural areas where millions of subalterns dwelled deprived of the basic needs of livelihood, they preached, tutored and mentored them, married and employed them, facilitated their housing and education, and offered them medication and assistance.
For decades, the downtrodden sectors of society have found in Islamists what they have not found in governments. Their children have grown counting the lies and unfulfilled promises of officials and consolidating their trust in Islamists. Though this raises questions about the sources of funding and logistics, certainly social service proved to be the most ingenious and effective political strategy which the Arab rulers failed to take into account in their political calculations.
While the secular revolutionists had a few months to organise politically, the Islamist movements had decades to do so. Throughout their struggle with the governments they accumulated political knowledge and organisational maturity. They installed effective mobilisation networks, settled matters of leadership and hierarchy, and knew what they wanted. After the uprisings, they already had a sophisticated political apparatus to carry out around-the-clock mobilization and galvanization for the coming elections.
By and large, contrary to the other groups which, short of time, could not gather around a well cooked political vision, Islamists had a clear political outlook and a “well-oiled political machine up and ready to go” as J. Owen rightly puts. Fuelled and strengthened by abundance of external funding and logistics which arguably came from their Gulf-based godfathers, they had everything they needed for the journey.
The post-Arab spring Islamist movements articulated a novel discourse characterized by moderation, inclusiveness, and openness to the universal values. Learning from the failures of the past and grasping the demands of a globalized conceptualization of political practice, they had to retreat from their residual discourse of vehement radicalism and dogmatism and revisit their priorities and strategies in order to rally the consent of a new generation of electors and alleviate the worries of external stakeholders.
The failure of ‘le FIS’ in Algeria, Hamas in Gaza, and Taliban in Afghanistan was not only the result of systematic internal and external reprimand, but also the result of these groups’ inability to diverge from the intransigent belief that ‘Sharia’ was the only source of legislation.
The new Islamists had to reconfigure their narratives about international relations, and local policy. They promised to sustain western interests and peace with Israel ( two indicators which until then were inscribed in their rebuke to the Arab governments for their slavish loyalty to Western powers and their vulnerability vis-à-vis Israel) and to experience politics according to the universal standards of democracy and human rights. They shifted from labels of ‘Khilafat’ and ‘imara’ to elections and ballots, which implied willingness to acknowledge whoever won the elections. Therefore, Islamic law was no longer the only reference, but one among others, including mainly the universal declarations and charters. Also, their willingness to ally and co-govern with seculars, liberals and leftists alike (like in Morocco and Tunisia), highlighted more pragmatism and political flexibility on their part.
The economic discourse did not diverge from the globalized tenets of liberalism, free trade, competitiveness, and foreign investment. Notwithstanding the stakes facing global economy these days, the green Islamist groups were still unable to forge their own economic vision and were contended with the imported one.
The social discourse was similarly reassuring to the feminist movements, the ethnic and religious minorities, and the underprivileged sectors of society. In Tunisia, ‘Annahda’ leaders promised not to subvert the gains of the feminist movements under the previous secular regimes. In Morocco, the same discourse was articulated, though the representation of women in the new government remained far below feminists’ aspirations (with only one female minister).
The fall of the liberal and leftist mythologies
Regardless of whether such labels as ‘liberal’ or ‘leftist’ rightly befitted the Arab political systems, they all intersected in two things: political autocracy and socioeconomic inefficacy. Life-long power was passed on to descendents and siblings in monarchies as well as republics. ‘Liberalism’ did not bring about emancipation and growth, just as ‘socialism’ did not foster equity and justice.
The liberals’ symbiosis and unwavering allegiance to the rulers had always ushered them to executive authority. They were simple tools manipulated by the head of the state to maintain peace and stability within the country, two fundamental prerequisites for long stay in power. Dissent was suffocated and stagnation was perpetuated.
As for the ‘leftists’, the popular credibility they enjoyed when they were in opposition quickly faded when they governed. When Morocco’s Hassan II invited socialists to take part in the government, they swiftly found themselves incorporated in the system. They simply failed to repair the existing political and socioeconomic anomalies and to put a socialist touch in their experience which lasted nearly two decades.
In a nutshell, either due to the leftists’ and liberals’ lack of integrity and social responsibility, or to the ambivalence and complexity of the political environment in which they operated, or to the authoritarian regimes that allowed them little space to implement their political programs, the Arab citizens have considered them as simple ideological tools of dictatorship.
The fall of the neo-conservative frame of ‘terrorism’
After the 9/11 dramatic attacks on the USA, the neo-conservative administration structurally sold a complex and complicating framework about Islam and “terrorism” whereby the line between the two was totally blurred and which included individuals, groups, or whole nation-states as potential targets of ‘the war against terrorism’. Federal PR and mainstream media were more dynamic than ever before, relying on federal study centers and outlets like Fox network whose relay reached three quarters of the globe. However, the tremendous loss in men and materials in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with the conspicuous implication of US troops in drastic assaults in these countries raised serious questions about the integrity of the neoconservative “war against terrorism” mission, and laid moral stakes in their geopolitical prospects for a new Middle East.
The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan compelled president Obama to revisit US public diplomacy and bargain the trust of Arabs and Muslims, which he overtly did in his famous Istanbul and Cairo speeches a couple of years before the Arab revolts, and consolidated even the more in his vision of a post-revolution Middle East in March 2011. Obama’s support to the Arab dissidents, albeit hesitant at the outset, proved wittingly efficient at least in deferring potential antagonism towards American policy in the region. The absence of Anti-American slogans and American flag-burning from the Arab squares was the result of, among other things, the Obama factor, as A. Hajji points to. It also sent messages of moderation and empathy.
These implications were further confirmed by studies conducted in the US by accredited US research centers like the Triangle Centre on Terrorism and Homeland Security, The Pew Research Centre and others. The first found that “the threat of terrorism carried out by Muslim Americans appears to have been exaggerated by US officials in recent years”, a conclusion that was founded on a noticeable decrease in plots and indictments. The Pew Research Centre Poll also found that over 80% of Muslim groups were more satisfied with their personal lives and the direction of their communities. The Gallup poll similarly stated that Muslim groups were even more tolerant about other faiths than other religious groups.
Such indices considerably alleviated the tension against Islamist groups and compelled Americans and Europeans to revisit the framework within which the neo-conservatives have articulated their narratives about Arabs and Muslims. They additionally offered them new parameters to perceive terrorism as a limited pervasive practice and distinguish it from moderate Islam.
The Erdogan factor
The rising popularity of the Turkish leader R. T. Erdogan has opened the scope for an Islam-based Turkish-style state to be a potential model for post-revolution Arab states. With flourishing economic indices and steady socio-political governance, Turkey was an exception in the midst of the European strife for economic survival. Moreover, while the rest of Europe was wavering in their support to the Arab revolts, Turkey swiftly grasped their enormity, declared its irrevocable backing to the Arab citizens, and prepared to be a leading regional operator.
Perhaps, Erdogan’s tough stance against Israel was the milestone of the man’s popularity among Arabs. He boldly expelled the Israeli diplomats in response to Israel’s refusal to officially apologize for the deadly assault on the Turkish fleet, and repeatedly stated that the Jewish state behaved beyond international law. He also supported Palestinians’ search for UN recognition of statehood and considered it a ‘necessity not an option’. Prior to this, his stance against the Israeli President in Davos Economic Forum in 2009 was seen by most Arabs as an act of bravery and strength. Thus, the Arabs started to view Erdogan as the leader that their degenerating autocracies failed to produce. Along his recent ‘heroic’ tour in North Africa, he extolled his country as a model to follow.
By balancing between secularism and Islam, and focusing on growth and governance, Erdogan arguably managed to publicize to the world, and to the Arabs in particular, a bright model to follow or at least to get inspired from.
The silent majority
Notwithstanding the blatantly exaggerated official numbers about participation rates, they did not go over 30% or a little more. Total disinterest in politics was notorious among youths who constituted up to 65% of the Arab population. This silent majority or ‘the couch party’ as the Egyptians like to call them deliberately discarded themselves from having a say in what they considered the perpetuation of corruption and elitist profiteering.
The Arab spring however reawakened an uncontested interest in politics among youths who yearned for change. We could see them massively queuing before ballot boxes with unprecedented determination and zeal. In the most transparent elections carried out in the Arab region so far, participation rates reached 45% in Morocco, over 60% in Tunisia and over 62% in Egypt. But why did this majority that comprised heterogeneous ideological affiliations and socio-cultural profiles choose to vote for Islamists? To answer this question would certainly necessitate a systematic survey in order to reach valid conclusions. However acute observation and shrewd reflection would undoubtedly yield accountable answers.
One of these is the fact that the young population of voters chose to give a chance to Islamists - the only option that was not tried yet. They had along decades tried liberals and socialists or seen their ascendants electing them , yet politics stagnated, economy deteriorated, joblessness reigned, and corruption propagated. Another answer stems from the atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion that followed the revolution. The very few months before election day were not enough to yield well-founded political stances, as they were characterized by vehement debates and confrontations particularly in Tunisia and Egypt. Amidst the disarray, the confused citizenry sought a visionary leader and a unifying factor to rally around, which they found in Islamists who they beheld as ‘clean’ and determined to make a change.
The media factor
Primordial to the Islamists’ mobilization campaigns were the new and traditional media. Long before the uprisings, the Islamists excelled in the use of the blogosphere and social networks platforms for consciousness raising and political mobilization. They wittingly evaded the state surveillance exerted over print and broadcast outlets, by configuring and regularly updating an alternative online apparatus that kept the circulation of information between them and their followers abreast, an asset on which they capitalized in their recent campaigns.
The less supervised media environment that followed the revolts quickened the inception of pro-Islamist newspapers and broadcast stations in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and kept the movements in direct and permanent contact with their publics. The MB’s ‘Ikhwan channel’ and the Salafists’ ‘al-Nass’ found a convenient space to operate without constraints. Besides, according to the Arab media society website, more than 12 NileSat stations gave significant airtime to Islamist programming.
Moreover, the leading regional news networks –Aljazeera and Al Arabiya- repeatedly provided Islamists with platforms to voice their political views. On a regular basis, Islamist leaders were hosted in different talk shows; political Islam was a regular subject for debate; and stories about Islamist movements were steadily prioritized on the news agenda. Both channels overemphasized the Islamist dimension of the Arab uprisings by regularly hosting ‘credible’ Islamic figures to explain the point of view of Islam vis-à-vis the revolution and politics. These channels might not have overtly supported Islamists by openly framing a positive narrative about them; nevertheless, by priming them on their news agenda they amplified them as a seriously salient issue that made the news and ought therefore to be seriously pondered.
Islamist PR confronted two challenges: repairing a drowning image inside and impairing a spirited tension against them outside. In Egypt for example, they had to restore the appeal they lost for being late to take to the street, for evacuating it in times of momentum, and for their accusations of suspicious compliance with the ruling military council. The general assumption then was that the Arab spring would beget a new political configuration that would transcend Islamist ideology.
In the mean time, the fear of Islamist resurgence reached its peak in western and namely US and Israeli platforms and venues. The French prime minister openly stated his scepticism toward the Islamists in North Africa. Likewise, American foreign diplomacy showed serious concerns about a potential political takeover that might undermine US strategic interests in the region. In Israel, politicians and anchors repeated the same metaphors of ‘terrorist Islam’, ‘the Islamic threat’, ‘the Arab fanatic winter’, etc.
Islamist PR networks operated effectively in both directions and managed to restore people’s goodwill inside and alleviate the antagonistic rhetoric against them outside. Locally, they were much more dynamic in building the trust of the masses focusing on the silent majority of youths and the underprivileged. They galvanized people’s anger against the status quo and mobilized them in their favour via a spectrum of channels: print and broadcast outlets, social networks, college auditoriums, Friday prayers, formal and informal gatherings, etc.
In order to impair external apathy and fear, Islamists capitalized on different rigorous PR tactics such as academic lobbying and regional media endorsement. Targeting western students and educators, Islamist academicians lectured and conferred in different US and European universities and forums. They axiomatized their new rhetoric of moderation, universal standards, cooperation, and common interests. Moreover, they relied on the most credible regional and global media outlets to communicate with their publics. They sent their most savvy and articulate leaders to Aljazeera and Al Arabiya headquarters in order to participate in talk shows and debates. Further, they kept cordial ties with their reporters whom they fed with releases and pitches. They additionally found easy access to the Arabic versions of global networks like France 24 and BBC World.
Via these venues, they managed in a short time to soothe the spirited rebuke and suspicion that their detractors impinged on them from within and from without. In the eyes of the majority of their fellow citizens, they were the right choice for a long-awaited change. In the eyes of foreigners, it was the Islamists’ moment and they had to cope with it.
It is a new era in Arab politics. Whether it will be up to the Arab publics’ expectations and bring about the long-clamoured change or a simple reproduction of the old inefficacies and inadequacies is not the issue here. The reflections proposed in this paper are hopefully meant to enrich the debate about the underpinnings that underlie the resurgence of political Islam and shed some light on a few dark corners which, until now, have not been accounted for and demystified.
It is true that the whole spectrum is not completely clear yet, nevertheless the cases of Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt –three countries of paramount geo-strategic eminence- send unequivocal indications about the nature and circumstances of a new political experience. There will certainly be exceptions, as the very recent Algerian case shows. Perhaps the Algerian exception is not surprising for, among other reasons, the bloody decade in which Islamists were directly implicated, and from which hundreds of thousands of scars are still too deep to heel, too fresh to forget. The contagion will arguably easily find its way to other Arab countries, as it may be categorically resisted and locked out, depending on these countries’ political and organizational immunity and the reigning democratic atmosphere.
Abdelmalek EL KADOUSSI is a researcher in communication and media studies in Moulay Ismail University, Meknes, Morocco