Ditch lazy “Islamist Spring” narrative


The narrative about an inexorable, ineluctable Islamist rise to power in post-dictatorship Arab societies has been further undermined by a series of under-appreciated and quietly dramatic developments in North Africa. The failure of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to replace the country’s chief prosecutor could be seen as a mere hiccup in the Muslim Brotherhood’s accumulation of dominance in that country. But recent events in Tunisia and, especially, Libya, are clear signs of the limitations of Islamist influence in those societies.

In Libya a few weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to prevent Mahmoud Jibril from becoming prime minister by a margin of two votes. But the man they backed, Mustafa Abu Shagur, proved unable to form an acceptable cabinet. On Sunday, congress elected Ali Zidan, a Jibril ally, to be the next prime minister, defeating the Brotherhood’s preferred candidate, Mohamed Al-Harari, by eight votes. This is a somewhat delayed but clear dividend of Jibril’s crushing defeat of Islamists in the party section of the Libyan election.

Zidan’s election is not a disaster for the Libyan Islamists. But it’s a definite setback and a clear defeat. Before the vote, there were reports that the Brotherhood might be willing to support Zidan, but the close result indicates that in the end they did not. It’s going to be extremely difficult for the Brotherhood to completely refuse to cooperate with him in the formation of a new cabinet because the impatience of the Libyan people with the government’s lack of progress, particularly on security, has been expressed through angry protests. There’s clearly a strong public desire for a more effective new government, making the cost of noncooperation with Zidan, especially at this early stage, exceptionally risky.

In Tunisia, recent Islamist setbacks have been more nuanced, but they are also unmistakable. They began with the leaking of a scandalous video of En-Nahda party chief Rached Ghannouchi’s remarks to Tunisian Salafists. Ghannouchi lectured the extremists, who have become deeply unpopular in Tunisia due to their aggressive rioting and lawlessness, that all Islamists should be patient and “consolidate their gains” because secularists “could make a comeback.” He urged patience while his party works to gain control of the army and police.

Ghannouchi’s comments were exceptionally damaging as they strongly implied an unstated, private alliance between En-Nahda and the Salafists, suggested an ideologically-driven conspiracy to take over national institutions, and reinforced the worst suspicions about his party’s long-term intentions. They also played into long-standing and well-founded accusations that even “moderate” Islamist parties engage in a double-discourse, saying one thing to the general public and something quite different to other Islamists.

In the wake of this scandal, and proposed initiatives by opposition labor movements, the ruling troika of En-Nahda, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol suddenly announced that they had agreed on the draft of a new constitution, the date for new elections and retaining the well-regarded head of the elections commission.

It’s clear that this sudden announcement was designed to staunch the bleeding caused by Ghannouchi’s remarks, the slow progress on forging a new constitution and repairing the economy, and the planned labor initiatives. But it’s also clear that in order to get an agreement with its non-Islamist coalition partners, En-Nahda had to make several serious concessions. They agreed that the president would be elected directly by the public, as opposed to the almost entirely parliamentary system they have been advocating since the revolution. The respective powers of the president and parliament are not yet clear, but this can only be seen as a setback from their perspective.

In addition, a proposed anti-blasphemy clause, dear to En-Nahda’s agenda, has reportedly been dropped from the body of the draft constitution, where it might have served as the basis for a law. It has been moved to the preamble, in which it will almost certainly be an aspirational statement without actionable legal weight.

It might be argued that En-Nahda ‘s brokering of a deal with its non-Islamist coalition partners is a victory of sorts, and confirms their leading role in the new government, but the significant concessions that were required to achieve it demonstrate that non-Islamist forces in Tunisia remain powerful and cannot be bypassed on crucial issues.

These developments in Libya and Tunisia again illustrate that there is no certainty that Islamist forces will come to dominate post-dictatorship Arab societies. They are influential, but must contend with other social and political forces that have the ability to defeat or extract major concessions from them.

The lazy, facile narrative of an “Islamist Spring” persists in both Western and Arab political discourses. But evidence is mounting that what we are looking at is infinitely more complex and nuanced. Any realistic assessment must accurately appraise the relative clout of non-Islamists as well as Islamists in post-dictatorship Arab societies.