The marginalisation of Islamist parties in the Maghreb

Islamist movements have found ways to rationalise their defeats by appealing to their previous experi­ences with the state.
December 17, 2017
New Moroccan PM Saad-Eddine El Othmani announced the formation of the new coalition government

Islamist parties in the Maghreb region have metamorphosised into small groups much more interested in maintaining links with established regimes and institutions than in trans­forming them completely. Their attitude might turn out to be part of their tactics for avoiding direct confrontation with the authori­ties, especially when we know that Islamists in North Africa have lost their previous confrontations with regimes in place.

Fortunately, in a way, there have been experiences of Islamist par­ties exercising power in Maghreb countries. These experiences in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are still going on. The Algerian experi­ence predates the “Arab spring.” In all three experiences, reality dealt Islamists a serious wake-up blow. They had to contend with the fact that their projects for major societal change according to one particular vision lead to hopeless confronta­tions with the regimes in place, confrontations that the Islamists inevitably lose since legitimacy and instruments of power were in the hands of the state.

Islamist movements have found ways to rationalise their defeats by appealing to their previous experi­ences with the state. This time, they were unable to find an acceptable explanation for their regression in popular polls in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

The stage of confrontations with the political, military and religious establishments was over quite some time ago but the Islam­ists failed to win over the establish­ment and the masses to their Islami­sation project even after trying to infiltrate educational systems and creating enlisting structures such as charitable organisations and educa­tional and recreational institutions.

Some Islamist movements had to resort to severing organisational and structural ties with the Interna­tional Organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood but continued to subscribe to the general spirit of the Brotherhood’s project.

When North African Islamist par­ties severed their ties to the mother organisation, they turned into local or regional organisations and immediately confronted a serious intellectual crisis. When these par­ties were under the umbrella of the mother organisation, the concep­tual framework was set and they had access to ready-made answers to many issues.

As local organisations, however, Islamist parties in the Maghreb had to make concessions, such as chang­ing their names and trying to come up with quick answers to pressing questions.

For their survival, they had to accept secular laws regulating party structure and operations and that usually forbid using religious affiliation in the identification of political parties. They had to switch to the umbrella of secular democ­racy, which dictates the acceptance of others and of rules and regula­tions that often go against Islamist concepts.

Islamist movements in the Maghreb accepted the secular rules of the political game and trans­formed themselves into political parties so as not to give the state a reason to eliminate them from the political scene. They were also hop­ing to have plenty of freedom, space and time to reorganise, recruit and rebuild economic and cultural networks so as to have wider circles of influence.

They knew they were operating in societies that usually do not look favourably on organisations in con­stant conflict with the “ruler.”

In trying to justify their transfor­mation into local political move­ments, Islamists often appealed to the experiences of leftist and nationalistic movements that had gone local and given up their major political beliefs to make peace with the state.

The problem with the Islamists, however, lies in their failure to give up their main political beliefs. On the contrary, they have tried to mould their experiences as local organisations around those political beliefs and, of course, ended up in direct confrontation with the state apparatus once again.

Bloody confrontations with the state convinced Islamist move­ments that they will never be able to defeat the state. The wiser alterna­tive was to get along with the state and play its political game. Islamist movements therefore started to legitimise their participation in po­litical life and agreed to make very painful intellectual concessions to alleviate the fears of the dominant political classes. Thus, the major Islamist groups had to give up their demand for implementing Sharia and shelved the slogan “Islam is the solution.”

In Tunisia, the Islamists were beaten in the 2014 parliamen­tary elections and, in Algeria, they received the lowest results in the latest local elections. In Morocco, the Islamist-led government failed to bring about effective economic and social results.

When we look at comments on social media, we find that most Is­lamists acknowledge that their par­ties have lost on two fronts. On the one hand, these parties abandoned their ideological roots and their dream of a total societal change. On the other, they failed to get to the centre of power and remain there.

It was precisely for this power that these parties had to let go of their profound identity to be ac­cepted by the deep state. That failed to happen and the Islamists became marginalised.

In the 90 years since they began imagining a religious state, Islamists might be discovering that their dream was a mirage. The reason for this failure has nothing to do with sharia, a lack of diligence on their part or with the strict inter­pretation of the sacred text, but with their failure to come up with a down-to-earth model that deals with people’s real problems.Because of that, the Islamists went from the blessed few to parties with limited social effect. Once they decide to abandon their self-conceit and stop chasing mirages, these par­ties could perhaps start contributing to development efforts.

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