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Islamism And The Arab Spring: What Went Wrong?



By Mhamed Biygautane

5 August 2013

The failure of President Mohamed Mursi’s government to deliver the economic and social reforms it had promised resulted not only in its ousting by the Egyptian army, but in blaming political Islam for failing to adapt to democracy and modern political institutions.

This has sent waves of fear to Morocco and Tunisia, where the Islamist Justice and Development Party and Ennahda respectively have been struggling for nearly two years to get the machinery of government back to work. Will they suffer the same fate as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood if they do not succeed?

The advent of the Arab Spring in late 2010 was accompanied by cries of hope and joy. However, the sense of optimism and expectation that the entire world had would be disappointed, as the outcome of the Spring turned into a grey winter.

Islamist parties in Morocco and Tunisia won elections and established coalition governments that dramatically failed to reform the economic and social sectors. As such, political scientists and journalists worldwide have started asking what went wrong.

Failing To Establish a New Political and Democratic Environment

The excitement over the revolutions that swept the Arab world did not take long to vanish. The political vacuum created after the collapse of authoritarian regimes was filled with Islamist parties that were driven by their leaders’ personal agendas more than Islamic values.

The failure of the Arab Spring can be essentially attributed to the lack of systematic, focused and structured democratic understanding and institutions. Hence, when political turmoil erupted in Tunisia, primarily due to economic and social factors, other Arab countries followed suit.

There was no coherent ideological basis to back up the demonstrations and strikes. The masses went to the streets not to fight for an idea, as in the American and French revolutions, but against individual dictators per se. When the old regimes collapsed, there were no clear alternatives to replace them, and worse, no coherent direction.

The Arab world still lacks the fundamental ingredients for a truly democratic experience. It is not a political revolution that is needed in the region, but an educational one that plants the seeds of political maturity and forms a generation of leaders who understand what their countries need, and strive to achieve it.

Arabs basically did not know what they wanted, and did not know how to establish democratic foundations that are applicable to their socio-economic and cultural contexts. This paved the way for Islamist parties, given the immense role of religion in forming the thinking and behavior of Middle Easterners at large. Islamist parties in Morocco and Tunisia tactfully played the card of religion, and endorsed the rhetoric of justice and social reform, to their electoral advantage.

The revolutions succeeded in toppling the regimes of mostly military leaders (Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Mu’ammar Qaddafi in Libya, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia etc), but failed to reform the ideological and political systems that had been operational in these countries for over 40 years. These systems have institutionalized a culture of nepotism, corruption at all levels, opportunism, and a deep lack of ideological and political maturity and identity.

It takes decades to successfully implement new social and political structures. However, when elected parties are moving in the opposite direction to where their countries should be heading, any hope of political and economic reforms might never mature.

Electing the JDP in Morocco by Default

The coalition government headed by the JDP not only resulted in the disappointment of the Moroccan public for failing to curtail public spending, lower unemployment rates and trigger economic growth, but also for continuously raising food prices, and lowering subsidies on oil and basic food products. This has made life for poor families more miserable.

The recent withdrawal of Istiqlal (Independence) from the coalition, and the party’s criticism of Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkiran’s ineffective management style, reflects the dire reality that he does not yet know how to manage his Cabinet or get things right.

However, now that almost two years have passed since taking power, the Moroccan public has realized that the JDP has failed to achieve its promises, not only due to the political and economic chaos sweeping the region, but also its lack of experience and qualifications. Benkiran’s government is undeniably guided by directives from the king, which questions the achievements of the initial protest movements and the legitimacy of the new constitution.

The JDP did not gain momentum because of its political agenda or promising potential, but due to a lack of alternatives. Moroccans had tried incessantly the socialist, Istiqlal and other major parties, but the culture of nepotism, corruption and economic sluggishness never changed.

Ennahda and the Future of Tunisia

Despite the advent of the Arab Spring and the absence of a monarchic system in Tunisia, the transitional political experience has been disappointing, not only for the Tunisian people, but also for other countries that looked to the ‘Tunisian model’ as a blueprint for reform and a brighter future for the region.

Unlike the JDP, which had been represented in the Moroccan government for years, Ennahda was banned from playing any political role, and its founder Rachid al-Ghanouchi was exiled for more than 20 years.

While Ennahda managed to establish a workable, albeit challenging relationship with its coalition parties, it has found itself operating in an environment where it is difficult to strike a balance between liberals and religious groups. There are disagreements within the coalition amid worsening economic conditions, rising food prices, increasing unemployment, declining government services, a pending constitution and dissatisfied citizens.

As with the JDP, the lack of experience in managing government affairs is the fundamental reason for the inability of Ennahda to deliver. The Tunisian public expects tangible and concrete results from its elected government. If the economic and social situation continues to stagnate, people will fully lose trust in the party and start to seriously consider alternatives.

Facing the Same Fate as Egypt’s Brotherhood?

It is not political Islam that is to blame for the mediocre performance of Islamist parties in the region and the dire failure to deliver, but the weakness inherent in their structure, ideology and incompetent members.

Most of those within Ennahda were prisoners of the previous regime. They lack the necessary education, training in government affairs, and more importantly a clear vision regarding the future of Tunisia. In Morocco, Benkiran’s leadership was questionable from the start, and with the withdrawal of Istiqlal, he is losing legitimacy and public trust.

Will the JDP and Ennahda share the same fate as Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Given the vast differences in the histories and political structures in the Arab world, the experiences of the Islamist parties will also differ given the socio-economic and political environments in which they operate. In Egypt, the military has constantly been the major player behind the scenes, and its intervention in critical times is always expected.

However, in Morocco the king will continue to influence decision-making. The JDP seems to unquestioningly execute his decisions, given his spiritual and religious role. To some extent, this is an effective ingredient for political stability. In Tunisia, a similar experience to Mursi’s Brotherhood is expected. Sooner or later, Tunisians will tire of waiting for Ennahda to deliver.

Mhamed Biygautane’s research focuses on the political and economic developments of the MENA region with special focus on the Maghreb countries.