The myth of the Islamist winter

Egypt and Tunisia aren’t sliding into chaos – they are simply learning how to be democracies.

Egyptian opposition supporters shout slogans
Egyptian opposition supporters shout slogans as they gather outside the Presidential Palace in Cairo on 11 December 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the Islamists who came to power through the ballot box are seeing their popularity erode and are tempted to hold on to power by recourse to authoritarian measures. But they have to deal with the legacy of the Arab spring. They face a new political culture: now, one where people who disagree with the government take to the streets; where there is no reverence for established power and the army and the police no longer inspire fear.

The Islamists are obliged to search for allies, as they control neither the army nor the religious sphere. And if they are able to find allies among the Salafists – the religious conservatives – and the military, these two groups are nevertheless not prepared to allow them to become dominant. The Islamists have to negotiate. There is a classical logic of power at work here: the dominant political group finds it hard to accept that power could change hands and so seeks to preserve its position by any means necessary. Moreover, there is no revolutionary dynamic among the populace that would allow it to prevail by appealing to sentiment in the street.

It is interesting to consider the precise nature of this authoritarian turn because it bears little resemblance to the “Islamic revolution” often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Nahda, the Renaissance Party, in Tunisia. It is, on the contrary, a conservative and paradoxically pro-western “counter-revolution”. Consider Egypt. If the president, Mohamed Morsi, is denounced in Tahrir Square as the new Mubarak (and not the new Khomeini), it is because his opponents have grasped that his aim is to establish an authoritarian regime using classical means (appealing to the army and controlling the apparatus of the state).

The electoral and social base of the Egyptian regime is not revolutionary. Instead of trying to reach a compromise with the principal actors of the Arab spring, Morsi is attempting to get all the supporters of the new order on his side. The coalition he is building is based on business, the army, the Salafists and those elements of the “people” that are supposedly tired of anarchy.

Morsi’s economic model is neoliberal: he is surrounded by “Chicago boys” who swear by the free market. He is in favour of deregulation, the end of subsidies and an opening to the global market. His government has just signed a deal with the International Monetary Fund that includes a loan with interest and which it has justified on grounds of necessity. Morsi has accepted the outlook of the IMF, not because he has been forced to do so, but because it is an approach he shares. This will bring further privatisation and competition. And because the price paid by swaths of the population will be severe, the government will need a functioning apparatus of repression and to break the trade unions. It will also have to gain the acquiescence of the army, in exchange for immunity and the right to regulate its own affairs, particularly in the economic sphere.

Meanwhile, to get the Salafists on its side, a cosmetic Islamicisation of society, on the Saudi model rather than the Iranian, ought to suffice: enforced wearing of the veil, continued discrimination against Coptic Christians, a requirement to respect religious norms in public and restrictions on non-orthodox religious practices (specifically, Sufi ceremonies, carried out by followers of Islamic mysticism).

Wider stage

In order to have their hands free domestically, the Islamists must make themselves indispensable to the west – which explains the mediating role that Egypt played in the recent crisis in Gaza. Morsi has performed brilliantly on the international stage, gaining the approval of the Americans in the process. He has fought the radical Islamists in the Sinai and has distanced himself from Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. He has been able to restore the prestige and influence of Egyptian foreign policy without lapsing into an aggressive Nasserstyle pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism.

Morsi’s success on the international stage has encouraged him to flex his muscles at home. Although there were irregularities in the elections that brought him to power last year, and which led to a legal challenge from the judiciary, no one seriously doubts that they were won handily by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. But Morsi has gone too far too fast in his attempt to reinforce the power of the presidency at the expense of a judicial apparatus that was able to retain a degree of autonomy under Hosni Mubarak. And his failure to anticipate and understand the strength of public opinion has made things worse. Demonstrations by a cross-section of society that were much larger than expected have undermined confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood. And voices have been raised inside the Brotherhood against this sudden burst of authoritarianism.

Time is against Morsi, because the economic measures that he wants to introduce will make the government increasingly unpopular. And, on the other hand, continued popular protest will require him to call on the army, which will support him, but at a price – the political and economic autonomy that the military is asking for runs counter to the Brotherhood’s programme of economic liberalisation. In short, the new regime is politically isolated.

Besides the street and the political stage, the other battleground for the Muslim Brotherhood is control of the religious sphere. Like al- Nahda in Tunisia, it has discovered that this is considerably more diverse than it had thought. Moreover, figures who had previously been relatively docile where the state was concerned, such as Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, have reasserted the autonomy that they were granted by the Arab spring. This means that the only way for the government to wrest back control of the religious sphere is to place it under the authority of the state (specifically, to submit the mosques to the diktat of the ministry of religious affairs).

State control of religion would in fact go beyond institutions and extend to religious orthodoxy, leading to limitations being placed on Sufi practices and theological discussions. Even if the Muslim Brothers succeed in the first part of the operation – nationalising faith institutions – the price they will have to pay for it will be high, because the imams won’t appreciate being turned into civil servants. They also run the risk of destroying the religious dynamic of their movement: if the state controls religion, what use is a religious “brotherhood”? And if religion is identified with the state, there is a grave risk that the unpopularity of the government will affect faith institutions in turn, as has happened in Iran.

The Brotherhood will come to be identified with its political wing alone. As in Iran, the nationalisation of religion risks giving rise either to a resurgence of non-orthodox practices or to the secularisation of society. The Brotherhood will lose its soul. And, in the process, it will have lost the Coptic Christians, the liberals and many women, all of whom are apprehensive at the prospect of state-enforced Islamicisation.

The Muslim Brotherhood has taken an enormous risk in trying to prevail by force. The first victim of the way it has exercised power has been its ideology. Islam is not the solution but at best a discourse designed to rally the Salafists, one that disguises a politics more redolent of Pinochet in Chile than of Khomeini in Iran.

If the so-called liberal opposition (which also contains some less-than-democratic elements) sees that it can’t afford a direct confrontation with the government and instead presents itself as a credible political alternative, the Muslim Brothers will pay dearly for a flirtation with authoritarianism that is serving to “secularise” politics in Egypt. Religion is becoming just one instrument of control among others – rather than a social, economic and ideological alternative. This is, in short, the failure of political Islam.

Playing the same game

In Tunisia, the same game is unfolding. Al- Nahda is neither as strong nor as deeply rooted as the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement is more diverse, with a branch that is, if not more liberal, then at least more realistic. And because of their commitment to violence, the Tunisian Salafists are not credible allies. What is more, society has absorbed the culture of protest more deeply than in Egypt. At the local level, demonstrations and riots against the government are common currency, though it is often difficult to discern the motives and strategy of these local actors (criminal and clan activity plays a role that ought not to be underestimated). Tunisia also has the most powerful trade union movement in the Arab world. The UGTT (the Tunisian General Workers’ Union) has a national network of highly organised activists capable of channelling popular protest. Al-Nahda is coming into conflict with the unions, either for the same reasons as in Egypt (a fascination with the free market) or for reasons more specific to Tunisia (it wants allies on its left but cannot bear to compete with a truly popular movement of grass-roots activists).

Additionally, al-Nahda does not control the security forces. The army certainly wants to preserve order, but it will not take the risk of identifying itself with repression against the Tunisian people. Finally, al-Nahda has not succeeded in controlling the religious sphere and has fewer means at its disposal to try to do so than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In October, a petition was circulated, signed by hundreds of imams who had voted or would vote for al-Nahda but who opposed all attempts to bring the mosques and other faith institutions into the orbit of the state. As in Egypt, al-Nahda proposes to use its own ministry of religious affairs to control the religious sphere, although this statism could rebound against the movement.

Missed popularity

The difficulties encountered by the Islamists have led to a marked decline in popularity in both countries, exposing them to the risk of defeat should elections be called. But the most pressing question is that of the political alternative to the Islamists. The leaders of new political parties have a credibility problem: they are only tenuously connected to the protesters in the streets, they are often associated with the old regimes and they retain an elitist conception of political life. The opposition, in short, is a long way from being able to assemble a credible coalition. The Tunisian opposition in particular suffers from its identification with the secular elite in the capital, Tunis, who are implacably opposed to any re-Islamicisation of society. It also suffers from a democratic deficit, as it has always supported a policy of repression against religious militants. Finally, it finds it easier to campaign in Paris than in the streets of Tunisia. Yet if there were a credible and unified opposition, it could beat al-Nahda in the elections. Consequently, Tunisia’s chances of staying democratic are better than Egypt’s.

In both countries, however, the Arab spring has changed things irrevocably. Beyond the aspects that I emphasised in my first article for the New Statesman nearly two years ago (a new political culture linked to the emergence of a new generation; the diversifying of the religious sphere; a change in geostrategic context that has resulted in the Islamists no longer finding themselves automatically in the anti-western camp; the “embourgeoisement” of the Islamists; the reorientation of a revolutionary movements towards conservative parties), a new factor is contributing to the normalisation of the Islamists – the exercising of power. The Islamists are succeeding neither in delivering the goods in economic and social terms nor in giving the impression that they are architects of an authentic social project that goes beyond the stamping of “Islamic markers” on a society over which they have increasingly little control.

The Islamists can use old techniques (treating their political opponents as “traitors”, introducing censorship, martial law or a state of emergency), but this won’t prevent the people from calling them to account. To get through the period of austerity and the economic difficulties that go with it, they should have done more to secure a “historic compromise” with the liberals. The alternative to such an alliance is not “Islamic revolution”, however. What is taking shape instead is a coalition that is con - servative in politics and morals but neoliberal in economics, and thus open to the west. In this respect, the model is the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, which has learned to work with existing institutions and civil society. This has allowed it to reconcile a strong state with a liberal economy, a conservative Islamic party with an open society.

In contrast, if the Muslim Brotherhood wishes to reinforce the state apparatus for its own benefit, it will lose across the board. The Brothers will lose support among the “faithful” to the Salafists (who are less compromised), and in the business community they will lose out to the liberals – or to the army, now that the old guard of marshals and generals has been eliminated. As for the spirit of protest, that is not about to be extinguished.

Translated from the French by Jonathan Derbyshire.

Olivier Roy is head of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence. He is the author of “Holy Ignorance” (C Hurst & Co, £20)