Vicious cycle of radicalisation
“The Arab Spring will be followed by the Islamists.” That was the headline of an article by Boualem Sansal, the Algerian writer and winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, in the German daily newspaper Die Welt in February 2013. At that time, more than two years after the start of the Arab Spring, political Islam was at its zenith. It was the big winner of the upheavals in the Arab world: Egypt had a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, Tunisia’s constituent assembly was dominated by the ideologically kindred Ennahda Party, and Morocco had – and still has – a moderate Islamist prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane of the PJD.
Opposition to that development was signally led by Saudi Arabia, where a different form of political Islam is dominant: Wahhabism, a branch of Sunni Islam which is linked with the House of Saud since the 18th century. Wahhabism gave rise to modern Salafism. Salafists advocate a return to the values and social structures that existed in the earliest days of Islam. While Salafism places doctrine first, the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1920s Egypt as a political and social movement. The return to Islamic values was a means to an end, and the end was liberation from colonial hegemony. That harnessing of Islam to a social agenda and anti-Western politics is still inherent to the movement today.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism share a similar ideology. Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood opposes the form of government that exists in Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf States, with their conspicuous wealth and alliance with the West. So the rulers of those countries saw the developments of the Arab Spring as an existential threat. The attempt by Saudi Arabia and some of its neighbours to turn back the tide should therefore not be seen as a fight against political Islam but as an ideological clash within political Islam: Wahhabists/Salafists versus Muslim Brotherhood.
One country in the Gulf stepped out of line. Although itself a Wahhabi society, Qatar lent backing to the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world, granted its leaders asylum and provided media support through TV broadcaster Al-Jazeera. As Emir of a small country of only 300,000 people, overshadowed by neighbours Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani adopted that policy in order to make clients of the most likely winners and thus secure Qatar prosperity and independence.
Besides Qatar, Turkey also sought to boost its status as a player in the region in the wake of political Islam’s success. The ruling AKP and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also made no secret of their sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood. The “zero problems with neighbours” policy devised by former foreign minister and current prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu provided the theoretical and operative framework: Relations with the Arab world, in particular, should be intensified and Turkey’s role as an independent regional power thus established.
Turkey was seen as a role model by the Arab Spring countries mainly in economic regard. Erdogan’s “business Islam” produced an unparalleled economic upswing, which brought prosperity particularly to the AKP’s conservative clientele outside the pro-Western urban upper classes and created a more traditionalist Islamic middle class.
Western observers expected the Islamists in Cairo and Tunis to follow suit. But they were disappointed. Neither Morsi nor the other Islamist governments seriously got to grips with economic problems. The lack of opportunity for political participation and the bleak economic future of a young generation faced with high youth unemployment and a dysfunctional education system presented problems that could not be solved by Islam alone.
What happened in Egypt demonstrated this in an exemplary fashion. But it did more than that: Because of the country’s size and significance, it had crucial implications for the entire region. The Arab Spring had taken also the Islamists in Egypt by surprise. After a brief wait-and-see phase, they decided to jump onto the revolutionary bandwagon and use it to their own advantage. And they succeeded. Many ordinary Egyptians who were disappointed with the old regime placed great hopes in Muslim Brother Morsi when he was elected president on 30 June 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood had an extensive organisation. It ran lots of social institutions and provided a kind of nationwide religious education service. At local level, it was mostly represented by persons held in high regard by their communities. Because of that, the Muslim Brotherhood was the only credible alternative to the old regime.
The disappointment was all the greater when it became clear that the new rulers had different priorities – or, as many claim, were never properly able to put their policies across. At any rate, there was no change in the soaring youth unemployment; indeed, no serious political initiatives were even launched to bring it down. Instead, fuel and energy ran short. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood focused on its cultural and socio-political agenda. Finally, it also sought to roll back recent achievements securing the separation of powers and to weaken the Constitutional Court as an independent institution.
After only one year in government, Morsi was removed from office. The protests were even greater than those two years ago. The people were particularly upset about the Muslim Brothers’ bad governance: They failed to come up with effective social and economic policies. After Egypt, political Islam’s other actors gradually fell victim to their own behaviour. In Tunisia, Ennahda was voted out of office on 26 October 2014 in the first free elections after the country adopted a new constitution. Ennahda’s Islamist agenda had already become obvious during the debates of the constitution. Nevertheless, the result – a compromise – was the most modern constitution in the Arab world. Similar to the Muslim Brothers, Ennahda had lost a great deal of credibility because it appeared to attach more importance to societal change than to solving social problems.
Despite the deep disappointment in Morsi’s presidency, the majority of Egyptians were certainly not in favour of a military takeover of power. The young revolutionaries were definitely against it. Ultimately, Cairo came to stand not only for the failure of the Islamists but also for their violent suppression. In the first weeks after the coup alone, hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood died in street battles with security forces. Since then, Egypt has turned into a police state, in which political persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood – as well as sections of the secular opposition – is far worse than under overthrown President Hosni Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood thus had no alternative but to go underground and radicalise. Radicalisation had already begun before the movement’s rise to power. But now the vicious cycle of persecution and radicalisation was set in motion. In the Islamist scene across the region, the ones who had sought to implement their agenda by choosing the political road to power were ultimately associated with failure. Force was now again seen as an option. One of the main reasons was the growing importance of sectarian tendencies within the region’s conflicts.
Conflicts in the ethnically and religiously heterogeneous countries of the Middle East were kept under wraps for decades, if not centuries, by authoritarian forces. With the end of the authoritarian regimes, there was nothing to stop them boiling over. They were also provoked by the instrumentalisation of minorities and denominational allegiance in Islam by actors with various vested interests.
Against this backdrop, the Islamic State (ISIS) is becoming alarmingly attractive in the eyes of many Sunni Muslims. Its media-savvy use of violence even enthrals people in the West. In the eyes of many, ISIS is now the prevalent manifestation of political Islam. All this has made ISIS strong and now makes it so hard to defeat. The vicious cycle of radicalisation is turning faster and faster.
Thomas Birringer heads the Middle East and North Africa team of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.