Between Terror and Tyranny

Political Islam in the Shadow of the Arab Uprisings

by Abdullah Al-Arian | published December 30, 2015

Nearly a year after Egypt’s first democratically elected president was overthrown by a military coup led by Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, a spokesperson for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) released a video statement that reserved harsh words for Muhammad Mursi. In the May 2014 video, ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani called the imprisoned Muslim Brother leader “a tyrant apostate,” charged Mursi with “fighting monotheists in Sinai” during his short-lived presidency and called for retribution against him. A year later in a Cairo courtroom, an Egyptian judge sentenced over one hundred Muslim Brother leaders, including Mursi, to death. On this matter at least, it seems Sisi and ISIS are in agreement.

Five years since the Arab uprisings and two and a half years on from the coup in Egypt, the Society of Muslim Brothers and movements inspired by its ideology across the region find themselves in as precarious a position as any they have faced in the past half-century. With politics in the Arab world being forged by the forces of resurgent authoritarianism and unbending militant extremism, long-standing conservative movements in the mold of the Muslim Brothers have increasingly found themselves violently repressed or politically marginalized. Already uncomfortable with the prospect of revolutionary change, these movements have responded to the setbacks to democratic openings since 2013 by desperately attempting to recover some semblance of the old order. The swift reaction by Saudi Arabia and its regional allies to preserve the prevailing regional system of conservative, pro-Western autocracies by suppressing popular calls by Arab protest movements to forge their political destinies reverberated loudly within the Islamist opposition. By casting their lot with this restored Saudi agenda, mainline Islamists aim to regain the grudging acceptance of the region’s power brokers, even if it means endorsing economically exploitative policies, exclusionary politics, the alarming rise of sectarian rhetoric, and costly wars in Syria and Yemen. In the minds of Islamist leaders from Rabat to Sanaa, anything less would see their movements doomed to irrelevance.

From “Arab Spring” to “Islamist Winter”

Despite the democratic openings they supposedly offered, the 2011 Arab uprisings presented an awkward historical moment in the trajectory of Islamist movements. Having spent the better part of the previous three decades deflecting the charge that they sought to overthrow the reigning political order in the region, Islamists were suddenly thrust into a revolutionary moment for which they were unprepared and subsequently condemned for failing to embrace wholeheartedly. In truth, the Muslim Brothers and their offshoots cannot be faulted for what they have never purported to be. The movement has no history of revolutionary ambitions, and the rare instance in which it did attempt to topple a regime outright, as in Syria during the early 1980s, stands as a model of abject failure.

Islamist organizations played a minimal role in the mass mobilizations that erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. In Egypt, the Muslim Brothers refused to endorse the protests scheduled for January 25, 2011 before famously reversing course three days after the uprising had taken on a life of its own. In Tunisia, Syria and Libya, Islamist groups had been subject to severe repression, mass imprisonment and exile, and were therefore tactically not well positioned to call their supporters into the streets. The role played by Islamist groups in Yemen was secondary to that of non-Islamists, while in Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan Islamists were actually deployed by the monarchical regimes to stem the rising tide of opposition.

The real opportunity for mainstream Islamist groups emerged not in the uprisings themselves, but in the political transitions that followed. As a reformist movement, the Muslim Brothers made their peace with the modern nation-state soon after the group’s inception in the late 1920s. Despite frequent allegations to the contrary, the Brothers have never sought a fundamental reshaping of the state’s institutions. Based in the intellectual school of Islamic modernism, the Brothers’ political vision does not challenge the existence of modern instruments of governance even in its efforts to “Islamize” them by reconfiguring the ethical and legal bases upon which they function. When it had the opportunity to do so, the organization pursued its inclusion into the state and when it did not, it existed in parallel to the state with the aim of gradually wedging its way through the door.

That opening arose in several states following the overthrow of aging dictatorships. Riding the wave of “revolution” the Egyptian Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Tunisian Ennahda Movement, and Libya’s Justice and Construction Party (JCP) aspired to replace one-man rule with democratic legitimacy, while the various organs of the state remained effectively unchanged or subject to ill-defined long-term reforms.

For all of the hysteria over the FJP’s supposedly impending imposition of archaic interpretations of Islamic law, it is actually the institutional continuity of the prior regime that warrants far greater scrutiny. From the affirmation of the Egyptian military’s continued privileged status to the wholesale acceptance of institutionalized economic and social inequality, the Brothers’ 2012 constitution deserved greater criticism for what it retained from the old order than what it changed.

In Tunisia, Ennahda’s decision to withdraw its support for a political isolation law targeting remnants of the Ben Ali regime was at once hailed as a necessary and judicious step to preserve the revolution and criticized as an abandonment of a chief demand. [1] Unlike in Egypt where the exclusion of former regime figures from the political transition added them to the ranks of the counterrevolution, the pragmatists within Ennahda hoped to avoid a fate similar to Mursi’s by giving potential spoilers incentives to participate in the emerging order, even if it meant the continuation of politics as usual on a number of fronts. The rise of Nida’ Tunis, a political coalition made up of many former regime figures, is emblematic of this strategy. By contrast, the Libyan Islamist party’s efforts to preserve some kind of continuity were dramatically overshadowed by the total breakdown of the Libyan state and the resort to violent street politics by rival factions. Its poor showing in the July 2012 elections resulted in part from the JCP’s inability to offer tangible responses to the challenges faced by Libyans, from the impact of foreign military and economic intervention to the collapse of the security sector.

Encompassing tribal and other ideological factions in addition to its roots in the Muslim Brothers, Yemen’s Islah Party, too, rode the wave of popular protest only to embrace a Saudi-mediated resolution in late 2011. The Gulf Cooperation Council transition plan allowed for the continuation of the Salih regime, albeit without its titular head. The agreement even permitted the family members of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, notorious for their political and economic corruption, to retain positions in government. In the political and military conflict that ensued, Islah Party leaders became increasingly associated with efforts to preserve the strength of the former regime despite their declared sympathies with the revolution. [2]

In essence, if the “Arab spring” was conjured up in the imagination of Western commentators hopeful about the spread of liberal values to a dark corner of the world, the “Islamist winter” that supposedly followed was equally a mirage constructed to allow for the reimposition of an authoritarian regional order.

The Coup and Its Discontents

Two years removed from one of the most devastating events in their almost nine-decade history, the Egyptian Muslim Brothers have yet to come to terms with the military coup that sought not only to end their pursuit of political power, but also to eradicate them as a social force. Comparisons to the wave of repression that marked the Nasser era fall short in part because the moment of reevaluation and self-reflection that the movement underwent in the 1950s and 1960s occurred quietly and privately. The very public internal debates currently taking place online and in international forums have reverberated with destructive effect within the movement, across Egyptian society and among Islamists abroad.

The defensive posture taken up by the organization, as seen in its singular focus on the coup regime and its supporters as responsible for the revolution’s failure and casting itself simultaneously as chief victim and presumptive savior, has not led to a serious reassessment of its present state let alone possible future. Much has been made of the supposed internal divisions within the Muslim Brothers. [3] Developed along generational lines, these divisions center on the nature of the “revolutionary tactics” the movement should endorse and whether they should include more confrontational acts such as resistance to regime violence and sabotage of public facilities and infrastructure.

For all of the tumult this tactical disagreement has caused both publicly and privately, it serves to highlight that the Muslim Brothers have yet to confront the deep-seated issues that have plagued it since the fall of Husni Mubarak. What future does an insular organizational structure have in a post-authoritarian order? How is it supposed to shift its long-standing ideological commitment to gradual change and reformism to the wholesale adoption of revolution? How can it balance its desire to dominate the political scene and impress its Islamist vision upon society with the need to embrace democratic pluralism?

The July 2013 coup and the Sisi regime’s subsequent ruthlessness have backed the Muslim Brothers into a position they cannot sustain. A movement uncomfortable with revolutionary politics has no choice but to continue on that track or submit to the coup and legitimize a dictatorship that seeks to destroy it. Sisi has banked on the idea that his zero-sum game will leave no room for the accommodations that marked Mubarak’s relationship with the Muslim Brothers. Instead, the logic goes, the organization will be pushed underground where it may resort to armed resistance or become suppressed entirely. In either case, the current impasse suggests a bleak future for the Muslim Brothers in Egyptian society.

Moreover, the organization has found itself increasingly isolated from like-minded groups in the region. Due to the strong backing it received from Gulf regimes led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian coup has served as a cautionary tale for Islamists around the region. The Ninth Annual Al Jazeera Forum in May, featuring activists and political figures from across the Arab world, shed light on the shifting agenda of Islamists. A keynote speaker at the conference, Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane of the Justice and Development Party had recently committed his country’s military to fighting alongside the Saudi coalition in Yemen. In her remarks, Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman of Yemen’s Islah Party endorsed the Saudi intervention in her country and cautioned against Iranian expansionism. [4] Other speakers argued for the development of a “stabilizing coalition” of Sunni Arab states to confront Iran’s regional machinations. [5] Not to be outdone, in the lead up to the forum, the exiled leadership of Egypt’s Muslim Brothers also issued statements in support of Saudi Arabia’s policy in the region, presumably in a bid to end its isolation at the hands of a regime that had declared it a terrorist organization just one year earlier. The head of the group’s political bureau told the Wall Street Journal, “‘I support any action that would restore democracy in Yemen and ensure security’ of the Gulf monarchies.” [6]

Weeks later, at a meeting in Tunis, leaders from Islamist parties in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria reflected on the region’s changing landscape. Muhammad Sawan of the JCP spoke candidly about the effects of the Egyptian coup, contending that a similar plan was drawn up for Libya. With support from Sisi and the UAE, Gen. Khalifa Haftar announced the dissolution of the transitional government and plunged the country into civil war. Sawan credited the Libya Dawn Coalition, made up largely of Islamist militias, with foiling Haftar’s plot, though neither side has managed to successfully subdue the other in the ongoing conflict.

Several Ennahda leaders I spoke with expressed similar sentiments, affirming that “a plot such as the one that occurred in the Egyptian scenario was also devised for Tunisia, but we avoided it.” Following the success of the coup in Egypt, and in the shadow of political assassinations that threatened to destabilize the transition in Tunisia, Ennahda relied on its trademark pragmatism to end the political deadlock and stem the rising tide of opposition to the troika government it headed. Prime Minister Ali Laayaredh resigned from office in January 2014, paving the way for new elections later that year which Ennahda lost to the secular Nida’ Tunis coalition. Since then, Ennahda’s political maneuvering has been characterized as being little more than “risk avoidance,” in a bid to secure its position within the country’s developing political establishment. [7] In the summer’s mass protests over allegations of corruption within Tunisia’s oil sector, Ennahda courted further criticism for refusing to question the state’s official reporting of oil reserves.

And just five days following the 2013 coup, with all eyes still on Egypt, the Syrian National Coalition, the civilian face of the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Asad, quietly underwent an overhaul. Following the expansion of its membership to include an influx of figures supported by the Saudi government, the ensuing elections ensured that the Coalition’s new leadership would be more closely aligned with the Saudi position on Syria, including the adoption of far more sectarian language by some of the Coalition’s leading figures. The massacre of ‘Alawis in Ladhiqiyya by rebels in August 2013 reflected the alarming rise of sectarian incitement by members of the opposition. For his part, Farouq Tayfour of the Syrian Muslim Brothers defied critics of the proposed move and provided crucial support for the changes to the Coalition. [8]

The Devil They Know

In a moment of cruel irony that served to symbolize the fate of the Arab uprisings, Sisi canceled Egypt’s planned celebrations of the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution to mourn the passing of King ‘Abdallah of Saudi Arabia.

Subsequent media analyses were teeming with allusions to a new era of Saudi leadership with the accession of King Salman, whose animosity toward Islamists was reportedly far tamer than that of his predecessor. [9] Whether this notion was merely wishful thinking on the part of groups eager to turn the page on their fraught relationship with the monarchy or in fact an accurate reflection of a shift in Saudi policy remains to be seen. Over the course of 2015, though, movement leaders have striven to ensure that in the increasingly destructive conflict between a resurgent authoritarianism attempting to reassert the traditional regional order and the forces of militant extremism seeking to redraw the political boundaries of the Middle East, mainline Islamists are perceived as dependable allies in the struggle for stability.

At the Tunis meeting, party leaders repeatedly warned that the rising tide of extremist violence from militants loyal to ISIS posed the foremost threat to stability in their respective countries. In the wake of several devastating attacks in Tunisia, the one supposed success story of the Arab revolutions, this line has resonated with Muslim Brother movements across the region. In the face of ISIS, a movement that attempts to challenge mainstream Islamists on their own terms by offering both an alternative activist frame as well as a competing ideological current, Islamist political parties have preferred to deal with the old foe of secular autocracy and not the new rival of transnational religious militancy.

In July, Ennahda’s parliamentary bloc backed new counterterrorism measures that human rights groups have criticized as a threat to the freedom of Tunisians. Moreover, amid allegations that the UAE government sought to destabilize the political situation in Tunisia, Ennahda has been wary of taking on a greater role in governance, even as a split in the ruling Nida’ Tunis Party has left the Islamist party as the largest bloc in Parliament.

In Libya, despite Sawan’s assertion that the Gulf-backed militias had failed in their attempted power grab, the JCP eventually signed an agreement that effectively legitimized Haftar’s government in Tobruk. Meanwhile, as Saudi-led military forces continue to impose a new political reality on Yemen with devastating consequences on the civilian population, the region’s most organized opposition groups have offered little more than uncritical endorsement of a war in sectarian guise that has rolled back the modest gains of Yemen’s 2011 uprising.

Even movements that are usually left out of the discussion of the Arab revolts are not immune to regional developments. Facing the deepest crisis in memory, in March the Jordanian Muslim Brothers announced a split of its own, with a small faction renouncing the group’s ties to its international affiliates and declaring its staunch loyalty to the monarchy. The state exploited the rift by endorsing the new group, awarding it assets belonging to the original Society of Muslim Brothers, and moving to repress the larger organization. In July, in its first visit to Saudi Arabia in several years, the Hamas leadership stressed “the importance of the Saudi role in the Arab region.” [10] In seemingly acknowledging the rise of a new power bloc along geopolitical and sectarian lines, the Palestinian movement went to great lengths to ensure it was not left out of the emerging calculus. Saudi Arabia’s December 15 announcement of a 34-member Islamic counterterrorism bloc, which also includes Hamas’ rivals in the Palestinian Authority, was intended to consolidate Saudi control over the regional agenda and head off attempts by rivals such as Iran to exert their influence. Having already neutralized the prospects for successful democratic transitions, Saudi authorities have essentially compelled Islamist opposition groups in various countries to get behind the respective autocratic regimes or risk being branded as terrorists subject to the full extent of the bloc’s counterterrorism policies.

Revolution Without Revolutionaries

It is quite telling that in certain Islamist quarters from Tunisia to Kuwait, the quiet critique of Mursi’s presidency faults him for having challenged the Egyptian military too aggressively and gotten too cozy with Iran. Reality aside, that perception mobilized Egypt’s counterrevolutionary forces against Mursi and has since left its mark on the region’s Islamists observing from the sidelines. Five years since the mass mobilizations that shook the region, the sobering truth according to these opposition movements is that revolutionary action only yields chaos and electoral legitimacy rings hollow in the face of brute force. In the ensuing conflict between resurgent authoritarianism and insurgent militancy, Sisi and ISIS, there is no room for bystanders.

Though initially inspired by the pan-Islamist message of Hasan al-Banna, over the past half-century, Islamist movements throughout the Arab world became increasingly likely to adapt their missions to local conditions. As Islamist parties continue to reshape their priorities as the ground beneath them shifts in favor of a return to autocracy, there remains the question of the future of the original movement in Egypt. Statements released by the exiled remnants of Egypt’s Muslim Brothers reveal an organization trapped in an endless cycle of condemnations alternating in focus from Sisi’s continued assault on Egyptian civil society to attacks on the Egyptian state by ISIS-affiliated groups.

Its internal divisions now threaten to rupture the organization outright. In a sign of the challenges that confront Muslim Brother movements across the region, the conservative senior leadership that maintains its control over the Egyptian group’s insular structure also represents the faction most likely to reach a pragmatic settlement with the Sisi regime in a bid to reclaim its traditional place in society. Meanwhile, the middle- and lower-ranking leadership has called for a reformation that replaces the rigid internal hierarchy with an organization that works openly with all segments of Egyptian civil society and adopts a decisively revolutionary orientation. If the latter contingent succeeds in forming its own movement to challenge the Sisi regime, it would not only bring an end to the Muslim Brothers’ traditional organization, but it would also find itself isolated from similar groups across the region.

Further complicating this internal dispute is the relentless external pressure on the Muslim Brothers that has only intensified since the coup. While Sisi has imprisoned more than 40,000 Egyptians since July 2013, his Gulf allies have ensured that life in exile remains ever precarious for the banned movement’s leaders. After pressuring Qatar to expel the Egyptian exiles it hosted, Saudi Arabia and the UAE proceeded to press the British government to investigate the Muslim Brothers and called on the prime minister to declare them terrorists. The ensuing investigation stopped just short of doing so, but it remained highly critical of the movement’s activities and appeared to have sharpened the discord among the Brothers themselves. In anticipation of publication of the British government’s report, the group’s London-based spokesman announced that Muhammad Muntasir, one of the most vocal critics of the Sisi regime among the Brothers, would be removed from his post, presumably in response to international pressure. By widening the clampdown on the organization and creating yet another bargaining chip with which to bring the Muslim Brothers to heel, the Saudi regime has employed a tried-and-true tactic. Whenever its legitimacy is threatened, whether by radical Arab nationalists or by salafi jihadis, the Saudi regime looks for a convenient temporary ally in mainline Islamists.

In that regard, the current predicament within the Egyptian Muslim Brothers reflects the wider challenge facing similar groups throughout the region and the degree to which they can exercise their own agency in an increasingly fraught political landscape. Though its most immediate implications are for the outcome of the continued instability plaguing the Sisi regime, this internal dispute carries implications far beyond Egypt. While the elders within the Egyptian movement seek to reclaim the space for autonomous action, other movements from Tunisia to Yemen continue to shape their reformist agendas cautiously, casting themselves as agents of stability and order. But if the dissenters on the margins of Egypt’s Muslim Brothers successfully unite behind a revolutionary platform, other movements will have to confront the question of what became of their own forgotten ambitions. How the Muslim Brothers’ identity crisis plays out over the course of the coming months will determine whether the mainline Islamist camp in the Arab world has simply chosen sides in the bitter conflict between tyranny and terror, or whether it can forge a third way forward.

Endnotes

[1] Christopher Lamont, “Transitional Justice and the Politics of Lustration in Tunisia,” Middle East Institute, December 26, 2013.
[2] Maysa Shujauddine, “The Reasons Behind Islah’s Weakness in Yemen,” al-‘Arabi al-Jadid, November 28, 2014.
[3] New York Times, August 5, 2015.
[4] Juan Cole, “The Iranians Are Coming!” The Nation, May 12, 2015.
[5] Wadah Khanfar, “Winds of Change in the Middle East,” Middle East Monitor, May 13, 2015.
[6] Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2015.
[7] Nadia Marzouki, “Tunisia’s Rotten Compromise,” Middle East Report Online, July 10, 2015.
[8] Raphaël Lefèvre, Islamism Within a Civil War: The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s Struggle for Survival (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, August 2015).
[9] See, for example, David Hearst, “Salman’s Generational Change in Saudi Arabia,” Huffington Post, April 29, 2015, and Mary Atkinson, “Saudi Arabia Has ‘No Problem’ with Muslim Brotherhood: Saudi Foreign Minister,” Middle East Eye, February 11, 2015.
[10] Mohamed Aboud, “Why Did Hamas Visit Saudi Arabia?” Middle East Eye, July 20, 2015.

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CORRECTION: The initial version of this article said that the Muslim Brothers had dismissed their spokesperson in London after the British government report was issued. In fact, it was an Egypt-based spokesman who was removed, and that happened before release of the report. We regret the error.

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