12.11.2012 | Islamist Politics and the Arab Spring

Although future historians might have little difficulty in dating the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ to the first outbreak of unrest in Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, almost two years in we are now no closer to understanding what they might make of its legacy. While in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia popular movements have successfully completed the removal of entrenched governments, a number of others continue to undergo major civil unrest, with the likely outcome unclear.

​Egypt, Libya and Tunisia all now face the challenge of establishing a new political system following decades of single party rule. A major irony affecting the politics of all three has been the success of islamist parties in gaining a foothold in the political sphere, despite playing only a minor role in what were largely secular opposition movements. The Ennahda Party, which won the largest number of seats in Tunisia’s October 2011 Parliamentary Elections, was illegal during Ben Ali’s rule and almost absent from the country for much of the 1990s. The Muslim Brotherhood had been illegal in Egypt since 1948 but retained a major profile in the country through educational and charitable work, with its members standing for election as independents. The Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won the first post-Mubarak Presidential election in June 2012.

The success of islamist political parties follows their emergence from long periods of banishment and legal intimidation at the hands of secular regimes. This former persecution is now a political asset. It allows them to distance themselves from the abuses committed by the incumbent regimes and to present themselves as the natural supporters of social justice and political change. While more mainstream political actors remain tainted by the divisive social changes which have accompanied economic liberalisation in these countries in the past few decades, the largely disenfranchised majority are able to identify more closely with the islamist parties. Muslim Brotherhood-inspired movements have capitalised on this, taking on names like The Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt and the Justice and Development Party in Libya.


This brings with it its own challenges, however.  Moderate parties campaigning on islamist credentials inevitably expose themselves to political attack from other religious inspired groups, which often enjoy financial backing from the Gulf in return for demands of “authentic” Islamic policies. Extremist elements advocating the adoption of elements of Sharia Law or anti-Western foreign policy will find themselves increasingly able to exert political traction if moderate parties are unable to deliver economic growth or redistribution quickly enough.


Security is also a major concern, most obviously in Libya where armed militias remain active and it is unclear that the government has sufficient will to force them to disarm. Both Tunisia and Libya have seen the wholesale re-organisation of the state security apparatus which, in addition to being used to crush legitimate domestic opposition, was also deployed successfully against domestic terrorism, which had been virtually eliminated in those countries by the mid-2000s. The effective suspension of such countermeasures, at least in the medium term, presents the possibility of an increase in political violence. This situation is rather less pronounced in Egypt, where the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces retains ultimate authority; however, this situation may change as its dispute with the Presidency continues.  


If democracy truly takes root in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya it seems almost certain that islamist politics will continue to play a major role in decision making, at least in the medium term. The challenge for new governments will be to ensure that the need for popular legitimacy does not come at the expense of sensible policy; and that more radical voices, while retaining a stake in the new political structures, are not allowed to overwhelm the pursuit of conventional goals.