Political Islam now in a state of crisis

The movement is far from dead, but it is rooted in an ageing, dying culture


‘What is happening in Egypt is the fall of what is known as political Islam,” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad pronounced confidently on Wednesday.

Assad’s prognosis may be somewhat premature, not least in terms of the robustness of the Muslim Brotherhood-led opposition forces in Syria, but there is no doubt that the ousting of Mohammed Morsi will send shock waves through the region and represents a serious strategic reverse for what has become known as “political Islam”.

The reversal in the political standing on the Arab street of the broad family of “political Islam” – also seen in the recent Iranian election of reformist Hassan Rouhani and in Turkey’s mass protests – risks sending a dangerous message to Islamists that they have no place in the political order.

It is particularly damaging to those like Morsi, Tunisia’s Rachid Gannouchi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have argued for a reconciliation of Islam and democratic, pluralist politics. If they play the game, it is being argued by radical jihadists, only to find themselves overthrown, like Morsi or the FIS in Algeria in the early 1990s, or sidelined like Hamas in Gaza, what’s the point? And, with some justice, they point to western ambivalence at such reversals of democratic mandates.

Morsi was the first elected Islamist head of state in the Arab world, which has always looked to Egypt as a political bellwether. It was the birthplace of the pan-Islamist brotherhood, which in the wake of the Arab Spring emerged from semi-clandestinity to become the region’s dominant Sunni political alternative to secularist or old-regime politics.

‘Emperor with no clothes’
Challenged to rule, however, the organisation has been exposed, as Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics puts it, as “an emperor with no clothes”.

“The dismal performance by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, ” he argues, “undermines the Islamist image, standing and narrative throughout the region, in Egypt, in Jordan and even in Turkey. It raises questions about their competence, their ability to manage.”

The brotherhood slogan “Islam is the solution” is now to many Egyptians empty rhetoric, and there is a demand for real policy ideas. It is facing perhaps the worst crisis in its 80-year history.

Crowds in Tunis, where the Arab Spring kicked off, converged on the Egyptian embassy to celebrate Morsi’s removal, chanting: “Today Egypt, Tunisia tomorrow. Down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, down with the rule of Ennahda. It’s a revolution until victory.”

This is despite the fact that, unlike Egypt, in Tunisia the Ennahda/brotherhood-led government has refrained from imposing sharia law and has sought to rule through partnership with the secular opposition.

Autocratic tendencies
The popular response to Morsi’s overreach is mirrored in Turkey, where the brotherhood-inspired AKP government’s autocratic tendencies have prompted mass movements in recent weeks.

Yet what is striking is the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was the architect of its own downfall. In the wake of the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak the organisation openly acknowledged the need for partnership and consensus, and promised that it would not seek to impose sharia law.

Leader Khairat el-Shater warned prophetically of the danger of a political backlash if it appeared to monopolise power, and the brotherhood promised not to seek a parliamentary majority, or the presidency, and pledged that a new constitution would reflect a consensual approach.

In all three respects it broke its word, and once in power began to stuff the state apparatus with party supporters and to operate increasingly without democratic controls.

In the end, Morsi unilaterally decreed himself and the assembly untouchable by the courts to ensure judges did not dissolve the constitutional panel, while Islamists hastily finished writing the charter in an all-night marathon. It was rushed to referendum and passed with a comfortable 63 per cent support but on a 32 per cent turnout.

Autocratic instincts no doubt bred underground in opposition, hubris, theological dogmatism and a failure to listen to voters all contributed to the brotherhood’s downfall.

Reporting on Turkey’s recent turmoil – he might as well have written it of Morsi and Egypt – David Gardner of the Financial Times observed that “Erdogan appears not to understand the diversity on display in Taksim and dozens of Turkish cities, and that Turks who did not vote for him – as well as lots who did – refuse to be poured into his paternalist mould”.

Political Islam is far from dead, but rooted in an ageing, dying political culture. The Morsis and Erdogans appear tone deaf to the new sounds coming from the street.


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