What’s a poor Islamist to do? All they ever wanted was to take over Arab states and impose their reactionary ideology on everybody else. For decades, they assumed that the only thing really holding them back were non-Islamist dictators. But as dictatorships have fallen and political space has opened up, they’ve discovered something exceptionally disturbing: their followers don’t appear to be majorities in Arab states, and they have run up against unexpectedly powerful and widespread opposition.
Islamist “revolutionaries” are therefore now turning to that time honored method of undemocratically consolidating power, the mass purge. The urge to purge is directly proportional to the level of frustration in attempting to gain and consolidate state power.
Therefore, not surprisingly, the crudest and most far-reaching purge is being organized in Libya. Pro-Muslim Brotherhood militias started flexing their muscles in support of a dreadful “political isolation law” back in March. But as Congress found itself mired in endless debates about this terrible legislation, the pro-Islamist militias simply laid siege to numerous government buildings and ministries.
Staring literally and figuratively down the barrel of a gun, Congress passed an impossibly far-reaching version of the legislation, with only four members daring to vote no.
The new law is so broad-based and vague that calling it “insane” wouldn’t be hyperbole. It bans anyone who ever held very loosely defined “senior positions” in the Libyan government or official institutions from 1969-2011 from holding public office for the next 10 years.
But if that wasn’t good enough, the law applies the same ban to anyone who “opposed the revolution.” So, it should cover just about everybody anybody else doesn’t like, depending on how such practically meaningless language is interpreted.
The law is in stark contrast to the attitude of the National Transitional Council, which led the successful revolution against Moammar Qaddafi. The NTC’s rational policy was, come one, come all. It welcomed long-term exiles and opposition leaders alongside anyone willing to defect from the regime. This openness was an essential component in the rapid downfall of the dictatorship.
But it couldn’t last, particularly when Islamists were decimated in the party section of the parliamentary election by a non-Islamist and nationalist coalition led by Mahmoud Jibril. The situation got even worse when, after a false start, non-Islamists were able to successfully install Ali Zeidan as Prime Minister.
It was only a matter of weeks later that Islamist groups in Libya became obsessed with ramming through the “isolation” law. There’s no doubt they see it as the best way to get rid of most, if not all, of their opponents including Zeidan, Jibril, former NTC head Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Congress speaker Mohammed Magarief. They can now go after any or all of these figures either through legal processes, or by force while also claiming legitimacy by appealing to the law.
The militia rampage in Tripoli was not only designed to ram through the bill, but to bring down Zeidan as quickly as possible, and as a show of power. It demonstrated their brute force but simultaneously highlighted their political weakness.
In Egypt, where Islamist frustration is mounting but nothing like as enraged as in Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi have also been moving towards a purge surge. In this case, the target is the judiciary, which Egyptian Islamists see as the most problematic branch of the government not yet under their control.
Legislation being pushed in the upper house of Parliament would force the early “retirement” of some 3,000 of the most senior judges, one quarter of the total in the country. It would make Gamal Abdel Nasser’s notorious 1969 “massacre of the judiciary,” which unseated a paltry 189 jurists, look like a judicial jobs program. And for Brotherhood members and allies, it might eventually prove to be just that.
Neither of these attempted purges is a fait accompli. Indeed, neither has really begun yet. But the groundwork is being laid. Anyone who expected Islamists to accept democratic outcomes, the separation of powers, or real, long-term compromise was deluded.
The good news is that in both cases there is significant pushback. Morsi has chosen to at least delay the confrontation by hosting a “justice conference” to discuss the issues. And thousands of Libyans took to the streets to protest the abusive and reactionary Islamist militias. The militias responded by beating and kidnapping protesters, yet another indication of their brutality, repressive attitudes and political desperation.
That Islamists in Libya and Egypt are resorting to a purge splurge to gain or consolidate political power is a symptom of the welcome fact that they are finding it difficult to do so legitimately. However, while purges are quintessentially abusive and anti-democratic, when they actually happen, they typically tend to work. So preventing them is not only achievable, it’s absolutely imperative.