Political Islam, a matter of hegemony

To this day the “Arab Spring” seems to be an historic event with a deep irony. The reason why Ben Ali and Mubarak were tolerated by the international community was the guarantee of a profitable social and political stability which meant the repression of the Islamic movements. This argument was used in fact, to oppress the entire society, but this always remained a side story which everybody pretended to ignore. What is happening right now, one year after the uprising of the Tunisian and the Egyptian people, is that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its avatar Al-Nahdha in Tunisia are running the countries and are preparing the new constitutions. The much feared monster of before the “Arab Spring” is tolerated after it and even welcomed as a strategic partner.

´Now that the “political Islam” has the power, everyone is watching how parties are manoeuvring in order to establish a religious political system of governance. The greatest fear is that while democracy brought them to power, they are working to create a new dictatorship. Having the absolute majority in the two chambers in Egypt makes the Islamising process not much more than a formality´

With 48% of the seats in the Egyptian Senate and in coalition with the radical branch of Islamism called “the Salafists”, the Muslim Brotherhood is on the path to completely changing the political system in the country and imposing the constitution it wants. Since October 2011 Al-Nahdha is the largest party in Tunisia and running the country and together with its allies it is fighting tooth and nail to impose a suitable constitution. Things seem to be easier in Egypt than in Tunisia. However, the debate in both countries revolves around the key word “Chariaa”.

Let us not forget that the two countries are connected to the same movement, founded by the Egyptian Hassan Al-Banna in the first half of the last century. It reached Tunisia in the seventies. The party was always repressed but never completely disappeared. This situation gave dictators an important argument to keep the entire society under control. Ironically, the repression gave the movement great strength and experience in self organisation. The uprising, by forcing the dictators to leave, put them back in centre stage. Since then, it has been very easy for them to become the main player.

One of the reasons for this quick comeback is the common feeling of deep repression among the people. Most people felt a psychological bond with this movement because for decades it was the most repressed political party. Another reason is the importance of faith in these societies. Both the Tunisian and the Egyptian society are, in general, strongly connected to religion, even if for the greater part of them, Islam is more an assembly of rules and traditions than a real knowledge or ideology.

Now that the “political Islam” has the power, everyone is watching how parties are manoeuvring in order to establish a religious political system of governance. The greatest fear is that while democracy brought them to power, they are working to create a new dictatorship. Having the absolute majority in the two chambers in Egypt makes the Islamising process not much more than a formality. The main discussion will then be about to what extent the moderated party is going to stand up to the radical one. In Tunisia things are more complicated. Al-Nahdha is forming a coalition with two parties who are not explicitly religion based and has to make more compromises. But where the game has been clearly won in technical democratic process, it is not so obvious in the public space.

Now that the battle of the elections has been lost, what remains is the one of civil society and cultural debates in the public space. Every society reacts according to the system it inherited from the former regime. In Egypt, liberals have taken to the streets again to protest against the power of the army and against the Muslim Brotherhood’s project. In Tunisia people are also back on the streets and regular sit-ins are organised in front of the parliament, with just one message: you may have won the elections but this doesn’t give you the right to do whatever you want. The tension in Egypt is more widespread than in Tunisia. Egyptians are fighting mainly against the army’s power. In Tunisia people are facing an incompetent government considered not able to meet the challenges of the moment.

There are also differences relating to the “religious culture” in both countries. Islam in Egypt is not the same as in Tunisia. The former is more orthodox and refers to two of the exegetes of Islam, namely Abu Hanifa and Ach-Chafii. The latter is more moderated and follows the theory of Ibn Malek. We have to add to this the historical evolution of each society. As a matter of fact, the women’s issue is more centrally discussed in Tunisia than in Egypt. The idea of the re-introduction of the religious marriage in Tunisia instead of the civil one, while it was forbidden for more than 60 years, is seen as a scandalous regression on the path of modernity and a renunciation of the principal of monogamy as a result of decades of fighting prejudices and deeply conservative traditions. This kind of marriage never disappeared in Egypt. That is why polygamy is still legal in this country.

Another sign of the way in which Tunisian society resists political Islam is the spread of a kind of violence and intimidation against seculars, most times called “Laïcs”. This word is supposed to mean atheists. The two words are very often even used together. It is relevant to notice the targets of this violence: TV channels because they broadcast films considered non correct from the religious point of view; universities because they don’t allow female students with burkas, filmmakers accused of blasphemy, lawyers because they are denouncing the incompetence of the government,… Most of the time this phenomenon is attributed to the Salafists and the Islamic party in power ambiguously denounces it. For a lot of observers this is nothing but a strategy to point out the moderated aspect of the Political Islam. Paradoxically the more they emphasise it the less they are trusted.

The most important criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia concerns its ambiguous language. While it stresses its openness, it tries to keep its psychological hold over its followers. To the liberals it says that all freedoms will be guaranteed, and to the others it declares Tunisia as the capital of the new Muslim empire. At the same time radical preachers, mostly from Egypt, are permitted or even invited to teach lessons in interpretation of religion. Subjects ranges from the right to iconic representation, to dance and music, all the way through to excision. During his visit to Saudi Arabia, the Tunisian Prime Minister declared that the disappearance of bars in his country is only a matter of time. The Tunisian President, who is his ally, declares that he is against limitation of any freedom. This schizophrenia explains a large part of the tension which exists one year after the uprising and lies deep within the society’s mental fibre.

Both Egypt and Tunisia always looked to two directions: to the West and its values of democracy, rationalism and technology, etc… and to the East, mostly for their religious inspiration. Ironically, after the “Arab Spring” the West met the East, not for all these values but for a common hegemonic interest. It is significant that the international conference of the friends of Syria was organised in Tunis as a prerogative of the USA and Qatar. The first is leading the political pressure on the regime of Al-Assad; the second has even been accused of financing the armed groups and part of the opposition. If the democratic world calls for a dictator to leave, it is somehow coherent even if it is not always based on a real will to spread the spirit of democracy, but it is absurd for that same call to come from a non-democratic regime like those of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Such a combination is as suspicious as the cooperation between Qatar and NATO against Gaddafi’s former regime. Gaddafi was far from being a democratic head of state. But that the democratic world would make a pact with another non-democratic regime to create change in a country is absurd. The pact between the two countries on the Gulf is not new. Since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, the strategy regarding the so-called Muslim World changed completely. The Western world, read the US, started to build its policy on the mediation by a strategic ally. The two countries are playing this role accordingly with their own hegemonic interests in the region.

´That’s why the main debate is between two trends: the so-called secular and the religious. The first one refers to the heritage of the westernised elite; the other is digging in the subconscious of the collective consciousness looking for unifying factors. Like all important changes, the Arab Spring put the stop watches back on zero. Everyone has to cope with all kinds of differences.´

In the eighties, the Arab Gulf countries played a big role in the war between Iraq and Iran. Later they were to be directly involved in the destruction of Saddam Hussein. Whenever there is a conflict they intervene in order to take control of the situation. It is no coincidence that the former Tunisian president Ben Ali elected refuge in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) and his son in law in Doha (Qatar). When the uprising started in Bahrain, the Saudi army intervened immediately and suppressed the demonstrators in a bloody fight.

The two countries have always played a leading role in the so-called Arab World. The more they invested in economic projects the more they intervened in the policy of poor countries like Tunisia and Egypt. This was either through direct collaboration with the regimes or indirectly through cultural projects. This is the case of the TV channel Aljazeera and a lot of other channels. They first started to invade the Arab media in the nineties. The free tone of voice and the high professional quality of its programmes helped it to easily reach a deeply frustrated audience all over the region. Its criticism could concern any Arab country but those of the Gulf, and never Saudi Arabia. A lot of other TV channels where created with the explicit goal to promote a very “soft” and superficial version of religion. Most of the time its programmes are made up of lectures or sermons spreading a very conservative and populist interpretation of Islam. Following these two styles, two kinds of Islamism have grown in a spectacular way over the last decade and in particular after the uprising one year ago. The Muslim Brotherhood is considered to be moderated and closer to Aljazeera. Most of the time it is even financed by Qatar and seems to be exceptionally tolerated by the international community. The Salafists are more radical and follow the wahhabist version of the Islam which is the Saudi version. The tow movements represent the religious influence on the political game in Tunisia and Egypt.

This phenomenon is not new. Whenever a big change took place in an Islamic country, the religious parties had a big advantage. This was the case after the Iranian revolution, later the 1988 election in Algeria and recently the split of the Palestinian authority after the success of Hamas when it won the elections. What is happening now in Tunisia and Egypt probably has to do with the speech Barack Obama gave right after his election when he addressed the Muslim world assuring it of the friendship of the US. Some people like Tariq Ramadan, indeed think that the Arab Spring has nothing to do with spontaneous change, but is the fruit of CIA manipulation. If there was no conspiracy to begin with, it is obvious that the balance of powers depends on the way the change is controlled.
It seems to be of common interest that the Political Islam seizes power in these countries. The revolution in Iran led to the Ayatollah regime, in Afghanistan to the regime of Taliban, in Palestine to the absurd isolation of Gaza in an outlawed territory under an outlawed organisation. In Algeria, the power fell in the hands of the FIS (Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement). The new strategy is then not to resist the emergence of the Political Islam but to regulate it, to keep it under control. For instance, the only Tunisian political leader to visit the US before the election was Rached Ghannouchi the Head of Al-Nahdha. For a lot of people, this was the green light. Thus, whether directly or not, the evolution in the Arab country never comes from within.

Religion always played an important role in the evolution of societies. In the western world, according to Borhan Ghalyoun , except in France where the revolution of 1789 made a clear separation between the Church and the State, religion followed the constitution of the modern governance that we now know. Round about the same time the Muslim world started its own criticism without completely severing the ties with religion. Jamal-Al-Din Al-Afhgani (1838-1897) was one of the leaders of this movement. The colonial epoch stopped the internal criticism and prevented it from evolving. In the second half of the 20th century, the liberation movement would bring a new project elaborated by the new elite educated in the colonial empires (France, England, etc.). That is when the cultural schizophrenia of the Muslim societies started: spiritually and psychologically they are very traditional but they follow a modern model to which they will never completely adapt.
The emergence of the Political Islam in countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, for instance was only a matter of time. These societies look at a world they want to achieve. When they fail, and they feel rejected by this same world, Robert Bistolfi  suggests, they plunge into a social and psychological crisis. They take refuge in the deepest point of their supposed identity. What is happening right now is that societies are looking for their identities, if ever they existed.

That’s why the main debate is between two trends: the so-called secular and the religious. The first one refers to the heritage of the westernised elite; the other is digging in the subconscious of the collective consciousness looking for unifying factors. Like all important changes, the Arab Spring put the stop watches back on zero. Everyone has to cope with all kinds of differences. Until now parties have been rejecting each other for all kinds of extremism. One is accused of atheism; the other of obscurantism. One connects democracy and modernity to laïcity, the other considers secularism to be a split with the authentic cultural identity of the country, i.e. religion.

This is counter-productive: the opposition between democracy and faith is a blind alley. Everyone then has to add some nuance to his convictions and accept ideological compromises and political games of coalitions. In the end something will perhaps come out that is in the middle of the two extremes. This will be possible only without any external interference of the petrodollar of the archaic countries of the Gulf whose stability depends on the alliance between priesthood and tribal leadership on one hand and the traditional unbridled capitalism on the other hand. But then we would have to be living in another world.

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1- Burhan Ghalioun, is the Chairman of the Syrian opposition Transitional National Council. I refer to his article : «Islam, modernité et laïcité dans les sociétés arabes contemporaines », Confluences Méditerranée, N°33, Printemps 2000.
2- Robert Bistolfi, «L’islam et la Cité, l’Islam dans la cité», Confluences Méditerranée, N°33, Printemps 2000.

Dutch version: Politiek Islam, een kwestie van hegemonie

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