A decade after the Arab Spring, the Islamist political movement driven by the Muslim Brotherhood, from Egypt to Morocco and beyond, continues to flirt with more extreme Salafist elements to build popular support — and continues to show its utter incapacity to properly run a national government.
The momentous setback of the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD) this past September has had everyone in the political world talking, including Islamists themselves. Abdelilah Benkirane, the former prime minister who returned as the head of the party following an extraordinary congress on Oct. 30, emphasized the responsibility of the party itself in this defeat, including "internal quarrels and renouncing the values of Islam and the fundamentals of Islamist militancy, including selflessness."
The outgoing party leaders, instead, described the defeat as a kind of puzzle, even leaving the doors open to "deep state" conspiracy theories.
Benkirane noted the difficulty in questioning what he considers to be "the fundamentals of political Islam," referencing similar failures of the Egyptian, Sudanese and Tunisian Islamist-affiliated parties. This reflection gives us the opportunity to open up to a broader question: Why are political movements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood matrix ― or with the same doctrinal frame of reference ― unable to remain in power once the elections have been won? What explains their inability to evolve and shape their respective countries' political environment?
Limits of election success
Too often, these parties wind up quickly overtaken by competitors, which almost always come from their own ranks, able to challenge them on religious grounds by exploiting the Salafist niche — promoted by a Wahhabism backed by the anti-Arab Spring agenda that comes from Saudi Arabia.
Political Islam, we must remember, is a very broad concept. It contains an often overlooked complexity that encompasses very different sociological realities, sometimes urban, sometimes rural, and very contrasting doctrinal roots. Political Islam can refer to either the doctrinal product of a Muslim Brother like Hassan al-Banna, or a Salafist’s like Albani, or even a Wahhabi’s like Ibn al-Baz.
A conviction-turned-slogan-turned-program: Islam is the solution.
Scrutinizing the differences gives us the key to better understand the proximity between the Shia Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, as well as the incompatibilities between the Sunni Talibans and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood-inspired religious movements have a precise mission, which does not rely on an organic relationship, as the organizational architecture of the Brotherhood suggests when it evokes the tandhim (organization) on an international scale.
The Brotherhood approach makes it possible to account for a psyche shared by different national movements. It also makes their failure in a governmental situation intelligible. It allows us to point where the paths they have chosen to build their relationship with power converge, as well as their ways of governing public affairs, their vision of democracy based solely on its electoral dimension.
A militant agenda
The Brotherhood-inspired culture gives clarity to the way public policies are conceived, how relations between parliamentary majority and minority are managed, questions of public and individual freedoms, as well as the reluctance towards the hirak (name given to the uprisings in Algeria and Morocco) and addressing questions of economic and social justice.
It has spread across the Arab world and beyond — as far as Turkey and Sunni Asia — and has three components: First, it is an organizational skill that made it possible to combine the engineering of the Marxist activism from the beginning of the 20th century and the brotherly heritage specific to the Muslim world. The landmarks and tactics from the militant agenda comply both with the demands of underground and left-wing activism, as well as with the phases of the prophetic journey: secret preaching, public preaching, companionship, exile ...
Then, it includes painful memories punctuated by key events that inspire its adherents: the assassination of Hassan al-Bana, the jihad in Palestine, the betrayal of Nasser, the martyrdom of Sayyed Qotb.
Finally, there is the question of the popularized Islamist literature, making it modern and accessible to the ever-increasing number of new students in a rapidly expanding education system. The writings of Sayyed Qotb, or those of his brother Mohamed and of Sheikh Qaradawi, which stand out from those of traditional ulemas, have contributed to crafting a solid ideological base — making it possible to establish this conviction-turned-slogan-turned-program: Islam is the solution.
Abdelilah Benkirane at the Arab League Summit in Kuwait in 2014.
Power and secrecy
This culture, bound more by a brotherhood of references than by a brotherhood of arms, wind up leading to conservative, undemocratic postures resonating with the most criticizable trait of the neoliberal credo: a hymn to individualism, a lesser role for the State and the establishment of a compromise with inequalities that only charity can mitigate. It's driven by five central features:
First, a conception of power as the product of the use of force or domination (ghalaba), and not as the fruit of a consent obtained by persuasion.
Second, the cult of secrecy (sirriya), and its importance in the unfolding of the action. It relies on a preference for clandestinity and opacity in the conduct of business and modes of organization.
The Salafist agenda is more about converting society than seizing power.
The third central value normalizes obedience (at-ta‘a) and respect for the hierarchy regardless of its basis (age, charisma, strength). This results in an appetite for pyramidal types of organization, a cult of the supreme guide — or zaïm — and a certain fascination for military organization.
Fourth is a legacy from the ulemas of the order established since the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. It implies respect for the power in place and opposition to any fitna (discord), even legitimate, and the resulting obligation to use violence to silence it.
The fifth and final value has to do with the relation to the truth which can only be one, granted and descending because it is revealed. This posture determines a particular positioning towards pluralism considered as a perturbation of order and to otherness apprehended from a binary perspective: inside v. outside; us v. them; civilians v. military; pious chosen by God v. others.
Leaning into Salafist fringes
The arrival to power by the ballot in the aftermath of the Arab Spring subjected the Muslim Brotherhood to the test of the management of public affairs, faced with a plurality of interests and necessary compromises.
In a situation of hegemony, Brotherhood-affiliated parties refused or were unable to change their doctrinal foundation and the content of their central values: On the contrary, they chose to align with the Salafist fringes of society. They thought they would find in the conservatism of society — nourished for generations by the nationalists in their anti-Western fight and relayed by the established regimes — a fertile environment for the development of a very strict puritanism. Their social project aimed at promoting an archetype of the average Muslim who puts family at the center of the social system and a redistribution of roles placing the father at the top of the hierarchy and providing only one status for women: the procreative mother.
This alliance has turned against them as the Salafist agenda is more about converting society than seizing power. Alliances with despotic powers, whether military or civilian, have never been an issue for them.
The contradictions faced by the supporters of political Islam once in power have benefited the Salafists and the ulemas in power. In other words, it benefited those who preach total conformity between the ancestors' frame of reference and their daily practice. We may be witnessing the end of a cycle of political Islam that has been dominated by the Brotherhood-affiliated culture, though this in no way authorizes the hypothesis of the advent of societies freed from the hold religion will have in the political space.
In his latest novel Ǧumhūriyyaẗ kaʾanna (جمهورية كأن), translated into English under the title The Republic As If, Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany features a character called General Alouani, who contains the complexity of a dictator: a subtle mixture of religious virtuosity and sincere piety combined with a proven fear of an omnipotent God and the capacity to use extreme violence just as sincerely towards his allies. We could just as well see in him as a graduate of the Egyptian military academy or school to train leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.
*Mohamed Tozy is a Professor at Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence and author of several books about religious and Islamist affairs in contemporary Morocco and Maghreb. His research deals with the sociology of religion, and the political systems of the Arab countries.