Democracy and Political Islam after the Arab revolutions

Islamists are in charge in Egypt and Tunisia because they were chosen by the voters in free elections; not because they won the battle for the streets. What is happening in the Arab countries is not an ideological revolution – it is a fight over the distribution of political power.  

Although Egypt’s current political turmoil pits Islamists against more secular opponents of various political stripes, their struggle is not an ideological one. The battle being fought on the streets of Cairo and other cities is primarily a fight over the distribution of political power in the post-Mubarak Egypt. It is not the Muslim Brotherhood itself that leads the government; instead, it created the Freedom and Justice Party to compete in the political realm, and President Mohammed Morsi formally resigned from the movement when he was elected last summer. Obviously the Brotherhood remains Morsi’s political base, and he makes his decisions in close consultation with leaders of the movement. But the symbolic distinctions are important: By creating a separate party to contest elections, the Brotherhood acknowledged the secularity of the political contest in Egypt. Morsi’s key allies in the power game are in the military and the business elites, whose concern is to maintain stability on favourable terms rather than to promote Sharia law. And the President’s own discourse stresses that he’s defending a democratic transition and the interests of the state against the threats of anarchy and vague foreign conspiracies, rather than proclaiming himself the champion of Islam against apostasy and unbelief. His secular opponents, moreover, brand him a “new Mubarak” or even a “new Pharoah”, but not a “new Khomeini”.

The very language of the current conflict is a reminder of the essentially secular terms of the political contest. Egypt’s was not an ideological revolution. Indeed, Islamists were not the main actors in the revolutions that swept North Africa last year, although they have since won elections in Tunisia and Egypt. Thus the key difference between these revolutions and Iran’s Islamic Revolution: The Islamists are in charge in Egypt and Tunisia because they were chosen by the voters in free elections; not because they won the battle for the streets. What is happening in the Arab countries is not an ideological revolution – a fact that has surprised everybody.

The demonstrators who came out to challenge the Mubarak regime didn’t march behind a clear ideological vision or to win power for themselves; they just wanted to have elections, parliament and accountability and good governance. They are revolutions in the sense that regimes have collapsed, but the events across North Africa have little in common with the big ideological revolutions of the twentieth century.

Still, elections have put the Islamists in charge. What will they do with their power?

In Egypt and Tunisia, there was considerable suspicion, especially among the secular, liberal milieu, that the election of Islamists is the first stage towards building an Islamist state – that an Islamic Revolution was being advanced by stealth. However, for several reasons, I don’t think that the Islamists now in power will construct an Islamic state.

First, as I wrote twenty years ago, political Islam has failed. The Islamists’ programme simply doesn’t work. They talk about sharia and say “Islam is the solution”, but when they are confronted with the challenges and complexities of running a country, they have to offer something else – and they know it.

Second, Arab society has changed. The Arab Awakening represents a paradigm shift. It was created by a new generation of young Arabs. It is a sizable generation, but the fertility rate in the Middle East has fallen since they were born. For instance, the fertility rate in Tunisia is now about 1.7 – lower than in France. This generation will marry later, have fewer children and be far more educated than their parents. There is also more gender equality – for example, around half of university students in Tunisia are female. Women are entering the labour market everywhere, and to the resultant changes there is a conservative backlash, which is not triggered by the Islamists but far more of a grassroots reaction. The return of the veil has to be understood through this lens of the entry of women into the labour market.

Nor does this new generation buy the political and cultural paradigms of its predecessors. They don’t believe in pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism, or identify themselves with a global entity such as the “Arab nation” or the umma. The Palestinian issue is very important to them in emotional terms, but it is not a factor of mobilisation. Many Arab intellectuals, especially those resident in Europe, disagree with this claim. But the global elite of Arab intellectuals is disconnected from what is really going on in the Middle East. In the past, Arab intellectuals were closely connected with the revolutionary movements in the regions – but not this time.

This generation is far more individualist than the previous generation, far more educated and far better-connected. They are not looking for a charismatic leader who embodies the Arab nation or the umma. In fact, one of the striking things about the Arab Awakening was the lack of charismatic leaders. Those who spoke for the movement on television were not charismatic, and didn’t want to be. Even in the Islamist movement, there are no really charismatic leaders. For example, Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of Ennahda, is a well-respected figure within the Tunisian Islamist movement, but he is hardly the kind of charismatic leader whose name is chanted bytens of thousands of people. His appeal is more political than emotional.

In short, what is happening now in the Arab world is not like Iran 30 years ago. The Iranian revolution was driven by a complex mixture of third-world leftism and conservative Islam. Of course, Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood are still convinced that “Islam is the solution” – in other words, that Islamic ideology should change the way their countries are ruled – which is what makes the secularists so suspicious. But since the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia came to power through elections rather than through revolution, they have no revolutionary legitimacy. Rather, their legitimacy is connected with the process of democratisation. This means they cannot simply abandon democracy now they are in power.

Secondly, their constituency is not revolutionary but conservative. They have been able, like the AKP in Turkey, to go beyond the traditional ideologically-minded constituency. Many people voted for them not because of Islam, but for other reasons. The first reason was they were well-known and organised. The second reason is that they are conservative. Egyptian and Tunisian societies have changed in social and political terms, but are still basically conservative. In fact, the more society changes, the more people cling to traditions. For example, people in Tunisia are not happy about the way that the traditional family structure is changing – there are many single mothers in Tunisia, which doesn’t exactly fit with the traditional perception of a Muslim family.

The Islamists’ narrative, therefore, is more conservative than revolutionary. The Muslim Brotherhood talks about identity, traditions and culture more than it talks about religion. Part of the Islamists’ constituency wanted the good things about the revolution – above all democracy – but not its excesses. Many Egyptians opposed the gender-mixing they saw taking place in Tahrir Square. And many people who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood’s party in the Egyptian elections did so because they wanted stability and a functioning economy. Again, this is very different from the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.

Rather than a primary source of strength, religion may in fact have become the biggest problem facing the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda. The Islamists have long been convinced that,  because they have mobilised on the basis of a religious identity for decades and have now been elected to office, they have a monopoly on representing the faithful in politics. However, the religious space has become much more diverse during the last 30 years. The paradox of the Arab Awakening was that, even though Arab societies are far more Islamised than they had been 40 years ago, there was nothing Islamic about the revolution. Rather, the Arab Awakening was a secular revolution in favour of democratisation. One of the reasons for this, is that when religion is everywhere, it’s also nowhere. Because everyone is supposed to be a believer now, nobody has a monopoly on religion.

During these 30 years, as part of the process of “re-Islamisation”, new forms of what might be called “religiosity” have emerged – that is, the relationship people have with religion and the way they are religious-minded. Like elsewhere, religiosity in the Middle East has become far more individualist and far more diversified. Even fundamentalism may not be quite what it seems: Islamists say there has not been a truly Islamic state since the time of the Prophet. For them, as for the Salafis, the 1400 years since that time have brought only negative trends. They don’t want to restore the ‘traditional’ societies of that period; instead they want to go back to the time of the Prophet. Ghannouchi, for example, talks about the constitution of Medina as an example of how to rule a country. The constitution of Medina, however, is actually not about sharia, but about tribes and how to manage traditional Bedouin society.Despite its conservative appearance, this outlook expresses the radical desire to create a new state from scratch, as was done in the time of the Prophet.

The problem, for the Muslim Brothers and the Islamists, is that it has been the Salafists who have most effectively capitalized on this change in religiosity. The big surprise of the Egyptian election was the success of the Salafis. Ennahda and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood resent being challenged on religious grounds, and want the Salafis to stay out of politics. But they don’t have the monopoly on Islam in the public sphere. The new religious actors in the public sphere, such as the Salafis, are using democracy to assert their independence from the state. The same goes for what might be called the court clerics: the leaders of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and Zitouna University in Tunis, who were appointed by, respectively, Mubarak and Ben Ali, are now suddenly supporters of democracy, because it guarantees their own autonomy. They are demanding what might be called political secularisation – not a separation of politics and religion as such, but a separation of religious institutions from the state.

The Islamists, on the other hand, want to take control of the religious sphere through the state, by strengthening the ministry of religious affairs and by appointing mullahs, transforming religious institutions into parts of the state apparatus. (Interestingly, the secularists agree with the Islamists on this issue, because they also want to control the mullahs for different reasons.) However, it is becoming clear that the Islamists do not control religion. The secularists who see Islamists everywhere and imagine that they control the religious apparatus are wrong. In fact, this is the Islamists’ biggest weakness: They must rely on the state apparatus to control religion, but if they do so, they lose religious legitimacy and will be confronted by the other religious leaders, including the Salafis. The new Islamist leaders in the Arab world are thus unable to transform the clergy into a tool of power as Khomeini had done in Iran.

Moreover, the political landscape has changed, with a new democratic spirit emerging in Cairo and Alexandria that insists on a separation of powers, the independence of judges, and so on. The Muslim Brotherhood may not have realized it, but the challenge they face is not only the absence of  a monopoly on religious identity, but also that they are not being allowed a monopoly on political power in the emerging democratic culture.

Sooner or later, there will be problems between the political branch and the purely religious branch of Islam in Egypt and Tunisia. The Islamists movements know that unless they separate the religious branch from the political branch, the religious branch will be compromised by the problems of the political branch. But if they do separate the two branches, they will accentuate the diversification of the religious field, depriving them of the religious legitimacy they claim. Instead of a hidden agenda such as the imposition of the Constitution of Medina, the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia are embroiled in a struggle to invent a new way for them to do politics without giving up their religious point of reference –what in French is called the référentiel religieux, the“religious referential”. They know that if they give up the religious referential, they will lose the source of their specificity. But how can they keep the religious referential without speaking of implementing sharia?

Regardless of the outcome in Egypt, political secularization is winning. If Morsi prevails and puts himself at the head of a new authoritarian order through an alliance with conservative social forces and the security forces, the Islamist agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood will have been discredited. But if he compromises with his opponents, he also weakens that Islamist agenda. Either way, the trend towards secularism prevails because the democratic idea has taken root.

Olivier Roy is a professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute in Florence and an ECFR Council Member. Roy has written extensively on Political Islam, Islam in the West and comparative religions. Olivier is a Senior Researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (since 1985) and a professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (since 2003).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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