Prisoner Releases, But Little Reconciliation, in North Africa

On February 27, just a week after the Tunisian authorities announced a presidential amnesty for over 1,200 political prisoners (including 70 members of the outlawed Islamist Nahda Party), Libya released 130 political prisoners, including all 85 of the Muslim Brotherhood prisoners it held. In Algeria, on March 6 the authorities released Ali Belhadj, the number-two official in the Islamic Salvation Front. In Egypt, there is a new initiative to press the government to release the thousands of Islamists held without charge in administrative detention. Do these developments signal a trend toward reconciliation with Islamists in North Africa?

There is not much similarity among the processes that led to the various releases. While Belhadj was released within the framework of the Pact for Peace and National Reconciliation adopted last September in a national referendum, the Tunisian authorities refuse to acknowledge the existence of any Islamist political prisoners and say they were merely releasing common criminals who were involved in violence.

As for Libya, the government considers the Muslim Brotherhood an Islamist organization that has not practiced violence and stresses that it is adopting a reform program. The Egyptian initiative to release Islamist detainees is being driven by political forces motivated by the desire to build consensus and calm after the good results of the Muslim Brotherhood in last year’s parliamentary elections. Imprisoned members of more extreme Egyptian groups, such as Al-Jihad, also have abandoned much of their earlier ideology (for example, declaring society and the president as apostates and therefore fair game for attacks) in recent years, and have apologized for their violent acts.

Despite these recent developments, it remains a fact that while many Islamist groups have adapted cleverly to the changing political environment, regimes in general have not changed the way they deal with Islamists. Regimes are postponing dealing with the issue, even though experience has demonstrated that every time the Islamists are given the opportunity to participate in elections that are the least bit fair, they tend to garner a large number of seats and achieve successes for which they are envied. Regimes are able to avoid the issue partly due to the mixed signals coming from the West. While influential Western think-tanks stress the need for regimes to do what they have long avoided doing and incorporate the Islamists into the political arena, all, paradoxically, insist that Arab regimes cooperate in the U.S.-sponsored war on terrorism.

The return of Islamist moderates, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to the political arena is a promising development, but foreign actors should also affirm the importance of creating a peaceful climate that grants all political forces the right to exist and practice. Ironically, secular parties have suffered the most from the many restrictions on political activity, to which Islamists have shown themselves more capable of adapting.

In any case the last word remains with the governing regimes, which hold the reins of power. Reconciliation proceeds, inevitably, according to the will of the decision-makers. Islamists and thousands of their sympathizers have already paid the price of admission.

Although some observers consider premature any talk about the return of Islamists in countries like Tunisia and Algeria, all indications are that these countries are not isolated from the profound changes that the Arab east is going through. Many taboos have fallen and new protest groups have begun to bring together secularists and Islamists, for example the Kefaya movement in Egypt and the Tunisian October 18 Movement for Rights and Freedoms. The latter has helped revive the Tunisian political arena. After years of slumber, the Tunisian street awoke to a hunger strike by prisoners whose slogan was “Hunger, but not submission,” and whose core includes a coalition of communists, nationalists and Islamists.

Reconciliation between regimes and Islamists remains far from imminent, despite popular demands. The obstinacy of governing regimes in the region and their continued refusal to engage their adversaries cannot conceal the essence of the matter: that there can be no reform without reconciliation. In other words, there can be no new beginning without due regard for those whose rights have been violated, whether Islamists or secularists.

Bassam Bounenni is a Tunisian journalist and researcher residing in Qatar. This article was translated from Arabic by Kevin Burnham. This commentary is reprinted with permission from the Arab Reform Bulletin, Vol. 4, issue 2 (March 2006) (c) 2006, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.