- Other OpinionsPolitical Islam Studies
- October 11, 2007
- 8 minutes read
The Islamist spring, is it over?
Things didn”t go exactly as one would have expected. In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party (JDP) failed to win the recent legislative elections, although many, including JDP leaders, were sure it would. In fact, the JDP performed worse than anything Arab and Western analysts have been predicting for the past two years or so.
What happened in Morocco is food for thought. Certainly the weakness of political participation, the randomness of the electoral system, and the split of the Islamist vote among several parties can all be cited as reasons for the JDP”s poor performance. One should also keep in mind that the largest religious group, the Justice and Charity Group, boycotted the elections.
Still, the loss of the JDP discredits conventional wisdom. How many times have you heard the prediction that Islamists would sweep any free elections in the Arab world? How many times have we been made to fear the bogeyman of Islamism? How many times have domestic politicians implanted the seeds of that “phobia” at home and abroad?
The Moroccan elections should make us stop worrying about Islamists and start worrying about other things. For example, why hasn”t democracy caught the imagination of the electorate yet? The turnout in the recent Moroccan elections was 37 per cent, compared with 52 per cent in 2002 and 58 per cent in 1997. Here is a country that has done much to improve its political climate, offering a variety of guarantees for transparency and probity, and yet the electorate stayed home. The only conclusion one can draw is that the public at large still doubts the ability of the ballot box to change things.
The Moroccan elections should discredit, perhaps for years to come, any comparison between the Moroccan JDP and its Turkish namesake. It is time we admit that the difference between the sociological and cultural climate in the north and south of the Mediterranean is still huge.
Arab Islamists were supposed to be at the height of their power, enjoying their springtime and about to pounce into power. What happened then? Not just in Morocco, but in other parts of the Arab world, the Islamist spring seems to be coming to an end. In Jordan, the relation between the Jordanian government and the Muslim Brotherhood has strayed from its normal course. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas is stuck in a hole, partly of its own making. And in Egypt, frictions between the Egyptian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood are getting out of hand. In short, Islamists are on the defensive across the Arab world.
I do not wish to oversimplify things. Surely the circumstances differ from one country to another. Surely the Islamist “setback” is not always self-inflicted. But there is a common thread running through it all. Islamist parties are having a hard time. They are at odds with prevailing regimes and unable to humour their political partners, at least in Egypt and Jordan. And their political tactics often backfire, as in the case of Hamas. In Morocco, they didn”t seem to pull the kind of popular support they needed.
I must add here that the current crisis doesn”t spell the end for Islamist groups, nor does it mean that those groups have no further allure for large sections of Arab communities. The Islamist surge is still on, despite flaws that characterise the performance of Islamist groups and despite their need to modernise their political outlook and adapt their ways to circumstances and expectations.
I can almost hear you say that the governments” reaction to Islamist groups has been heavy-handed. But wait a minute. The repression of Islamists is not any worse than that of other political and ideological groups in the post-independence phase across the Arab world. At least in a small part, Arab Islamist movements must take the blame for their current crisis.
In Jordan, the relation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government has ranged between integration and repression for years. But the recent tensions are largely due to the actions of the Brotherhood, which is still reacting to changes in domestic and regional circumstances in the same old way; namely, by capitalising on the goodwill of the government while failing to update its political discourse. The Brotherhood still acts as if it is the “most-favoured” group in the country.
Jordan”s recent municipal elections suggest that the Brotherhood has perhaps lost some of the good sense it exhibited during the 1980s and 1990s. The Brotherhood unleashed a scathing attack on the Jordanian government, not sparing top officials or the army. Such attitude gave its enemies opportunity to turn the government against the Brotherhood. Regionally, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to steer a clear course from Hamas, a group that is in an unprecedented situation that is at least partly of its own making. One of the worst errors of the Brotherhood happened during the funeral of Abu Musab, when some Brotherhood members failed to draw a line between their political affiliation and their clan loyalties.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is coming under the worst clampdown since the 1960s. And yet, the past two years proved that the Brotherhood”s ability to review its doctrinal approach and organisational structure is still quite limited, despite the historic opportunity the group enjoyed after its outstanding performance in the 2005 People”s Assembly elections.
One would have expected a group suffering from repression and “intentional” exclusion to jump at the first opportunity for political partnership with other political players on the scene. Not Egypt”s Muslim Brotherhood. The group failed to develop the kind of partnership with other parties that would have protected it from the government”s ire. And it failed to seek a reconciliatory programme in cooperation with other groups, a programme that could have furthered the chances of overdue reform.
No one can condone the arbitrary and abusive measures the government and its security services have taken against Muslim Brotherhood leaders. No one can tolerate the exclusion of a political group of the Brotherhood”s size in Egypt. And yet the Brotherhood is still making the kind of naïve errors that turn society and its civil groups against its political scheme and doctrines. Many may remember the incident that happened in Al-Azhar late in 2006, an incident that greatly harmed the Brotherhood.
In Palestine, Hamas is still pleading innocence as to its current ordeal. Granted, many domestic and foreign forces were eager to isolate Hamas and trap it in its voluntary “incarceration” in Gaza. But some Hamas leaders seem to be taking a masochistic pleasure in their predicament, refusing to recognise the immensity of what happened in mid-June. Some Hamas leaders claim that they were “forced” to take over Gaza, but that”s a lame excuse. Their actions, however idealistic, may prove suicidal in the end.
Hamas needs to reassess its political approach. It wouldn”t harm its leaders to consult a book written by Sheikh Youssef Al-Qaradawi five years ago about the 10 sins of the Islamic revival ( Islamic Revival: From Adolescence to Maturity, Dar Al-Shorouq, 2002), for it has a few suggestions they could use.
In each of the above three cases, Islamist movements came under one form or another of repression. This was not the case in Morocco, however, which makes the failure of the JDP more dramatic and makes one wonder about the future of Islamists in the Arab world. Despite their current troubles, they still have their grassroots. They can still offer themselves as a viable alternative to existing regimes.
What is more worrying is the apparent inability of Arab society to produce other political alternatives to prevailing regimes and the Islamists. Our societies stand at the threshold of a new phase, one that some have dubbed the “Salafi phase”. The worst thing that can happen now is for mainstream groups to accept the leadership of Salafi Islamists. Such a move would be self-defeating to say the least.
The springtime of Arab Islamists was short, just as were the springs of the democrats, the liberals, and the seculars. But the current troubles of the Islamists must not be seen as a victory for the status quo. The seeds of change that have been sown in Arab societies over the past three years are not dead yet. Perhaps a new generation will emerge, one that believes in democracy and is willing to defend it.