Political Islam May no Longer be Relevant in The Arab World

Published September 13th, 2021 - 04:56 GMT
Aziz Akhannouch
Aziz Akhannouch clenches the elections (AFP)
The autocratic regimes and Islamist parties of the Arab world can take this time to learn from and fix their mistakes, or expect another uprising.

In one of the most recent parliamentary elections in the Arab world, the moderate ruling Islamist party in Morocco, the Justice and Development (JDP), suffered a crushing defeat shrinking its share of the parliamentary seats from 125 in 2016 to 12, far behind its main liberal opponents, the National Rally of Independents (INR) with 97 seats and the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) with 82 seats. 

Both winning parties are close to Morocco’s Royal Palace. The brother-in-law of the monarch’s father, late King Hassan II, established the INR while Fouad Ali El Himma, an advisor and former schoolmate of King Mohammed VI established the PAM.

This development comes less than two months after the soft coup executed by Tunisia’s President, Kais Saied, against another moderate Islamist party Annahda led by Rached Ghannouchi. Contrary to the case in Morocco, President Saied simply sacked PM Hicham Mechichi, suspended the elected parliament until further notice, assumed the executive power, the power of public persecution and appointed loyal figures to several critical positions. He barely faced any criticism or pressure from the Western democracies. 

Last week, the son of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al Islam, announced that he would run in the presidential election to be held on 24 December. In Syria, Bashar al Assad proudly announced that he won the – farcical - elections with 95.1 percent of the votes after a decade of war against the Syrian people, which will theoretically allow him to stay in power till 2028, at least and probably prepare his son, Hafez, to rule after him. 

In Egypt, the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) continues in several ways. The Egyptian courts continue to issue death sentences against leaders and members of the MB. Last July, the parliament passed a law enabling the government to sack civil servants linked to MB.

These trends suggest two things. First, the era that enabled the political Islamist parties in the Arab world to breathe, participate in politics and gain power amid the Arab revolutions, is over. The defeat of the last standing moderate JDP in Morocco marks the decline of political Islam in the Arab world.

Second, the autocratic Arab regimes are alive and kicking. They are back to retain what they always deemed their private property. With over half a century of rooted dictatorship, corruption, manipulation, resources and foreign support, they proved that they have what it takes to outsmart whoever wants to challenge them or suggest a democratic alternative.

To that end, the Arab regimes applied different tactics and strategies to get rid of their opponents, critics and rivals. They created a vicious circle that is almost impossible to escape from. 

If you agree with the regimes’ terms it is a problem; if you disagree with them, it is also a problem. Ultimately, after a decade of the eruption of the Arab revolutions, the Arab governments managed to oust the Islamist from the main scene in one way or another.

This is not to say the Islamist parties were perfect. Compared to other Arab parties, the Islamist parties are generally more organised and better connected. But, in the end, just like other parties in the Arab world, they existed for long periods in dark, repressive and hopeless environments completely controlled by the Arab regimes, leading them to harbour several shortcomings. 

While some of them defied sincere and honest advice and committed several grave mistakes, others showed pragmatism and a better understanding of the political game and regional and international circumstances. 

Yet, ultimately, these parties couldn’t survive. This comes at a time where new types of relations and re-alignments are taking place among regional countries in the post-Trump era. Countries that were at each other’s throats till very recently, like Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, are opening up, making efforts at rapprochement, and trying to explore opportunities to normalise relations.

These developments, along with the aforementioned details, reflect new geopolitical, regional and international realities, but they also raise questions about the fate of the MB. 

For so long, the Arab regimes promoted a discourse that portrays the MB as the greatest challenge to the stability and prosperity of the region and the biggest threat to their nations and the Western interests.

Following the Arab regimes’ logic, now that the Islamists are not in charge, things are going to become rosy in the Arab countries, right? Of course not. The main reason is that the MB has not been really the biggest problem in the Arab world; the Arab regimes and their foreign supporters are. 

Political, economic and security indicators in the Arab World along with the state of freedoms, the high unemployment rates and the level of repression are currently much worse compared to the previous times, and is expected to be worse in the future if we stay on the current course.

In order to expect what is coming next, one should think of the Arab world as a pressure cooker with a malfunctioning valve. If not genuinely fixed, once it reaches a boiling point, it will explode, again. 

Hence, if there is a will, whether in the Islamist parties or the Arab regimes, to learn from the past, grasp the right lessons, and fix things, this is the right time to do it. Otherwise, expect a new Arab uprising sooner or later.

Dr Ali Bakir is a Senior researcher at Ibn Khaldon Center. He holds a PhD in political science and international relations.


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