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What about Freedom?

New Islamist Players in North Africa Complicate the Political Transformation


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2012, P. 227-231
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In the states of the "Arab Spring" the political change resulted primarily in an increased presence of Islamist parties. The radical Salafis, too, are often in the ascendant. The "non-Islamists" are fragmented. It is to be feared that authoritarianism will ultimately only change color.


Under the until early 2011 prevailing conditions of authoritarian rule, in the North African States the religious sector, as well as all other areas, was closely monitored. The supervisory authority, however, varied here from state to state. In Morocco and Libya, the leaders themselves, i.e. King Mohammed VI as Commander of the Faithful and Revolutionary Leader Qadhafi as herald of his new Islamic policy, determined the direction of the religious discourse, whereas in Tunisia the by the President appointed Mufti of the Republic and his Diwan and in Algeria the by the President appointed Islamic Supreme Council had a leadership role.

In all countries, the subordinate ministries for Religious or Islamic Affairs were responsible for the operational control of imams, mosques and religious instruction (see in detail Sigrid Faath: Staatliche Religionspolitik in Nordafrika/Nahost Ein Instrument für modernisierende Reformen?, Hamburg, GIGA 2007; at: The surveillance by the state applied also to those parties and civil society groups which were committed to enhancing the role of religion in the state. Due to the conflict with the formally secular-oriented state, these players were victims of political counter-measures and therefore partly, as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or the Moroccan movement Justice and Charity (Al-Adl wal-Ihsane), at best tolerated, but usually prohibited.

Only in exceptional cases, Islamist parties were legalized as political parties, provided that they supported the public order and renounced violence. Examples were the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD) and the Algerian Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP).


The Political Radical Change Creates New Spheres of Action and Basic Conditions

The since January 2011 in all North African countries observable political upheavals changed the structure of the religious sector - dependent on the intensity of the local political developments. In those states where a change in regime happened, as e.g. in Tunisia (14 January 2011), Egypt (11 February 2011) and Libya (August 2011), the changes were inevitably more extensive and fundamental than in Morocco and Algeria, where the political protests were significantly weaker and the subsequent political reforms were rather limited.



The rise of Islamist groups and the demand to make above all Sharia law the societal reference point were not foreseeable at the beginning of the protests, because the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups had, despite their high degree of organization, played no leading and mobilizing role. Rather, it was young people, trade unionists, women's groups and human rights activists who, without reference to religion, spontaneously demonstrated and called for justice, freedom and dignity. In the then launched election campaigns, however, their spontaneity and their low level of organization were exactly those political shortcomings which brought it about that their representatives are hardly represented in the new parliaments.

In the election to the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia on 23 October 2011, the early parliamentary elections in Morocco on 25 November 2011 and in the parliamentary elections in Egypt December 2011 / January 2012, the competing Islamist parties won almost a landslide victory and made sure that the "Arab" has meanwhile become an "Islamic spring."

In Tunisia, under the leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi the since the nineties forbidden and only in the spring of 2011 admitted party Ennanda (Renaissance) gained 89 of the 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly, because in the eyes of the population it could be marketed as a longstanding opposition to the regime of Ben Ali. According to the agreement of the three top winners in the elections of 23 October 2011 (Ennanda, the social democratic Attakatoul, and the nationalist Congress for the Republic), in December 2011 the Office of Prime Minister was given to the Secretary General of the Ennanda Party, Hamadi Jebali. In the new cabinet, sworn in on 24 December 2011, Jebali filled the most positions with Ennanda members: including the departments of exterior, interior, justice, religion, human rights, higher education.

In Morocco, the Party for Justice and Development succeeded in more than doubling its presence in parliament to 107 seats (in total 395), compared to 2007. According to the modifications of the Constitution of July 2011, it is thus entitled to provide the head of government. In Morocco, too, the new government is dominated by members of the Justice and Development Party.

With about 70 percent of the seats, the victory of the Islamists in Egypt was overwhelming. Here, the newly formed party of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Party for Freedom and Justice (FJP) won 127 of the in total 332 seats allocated to party lists. Starting from scratch, the also recently founded party of the Salafi movement, the Party of Light (Al-Nour Party) became the second strongest force with 96 seats. It advocates clearly more radical positions than the Muslim Brotherhood does. Secular / liberal-oriented parties were relegated to the rear seats; with 36 seats the Wafd Party achieved still the best result. Due to this election result, it was clear that both the speaker of parliament and most of the chairmen of the parliamentary committees are provided by the FJP.

There was criticism by the secular-liberal parties and civil society, when in March 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood also filled almost exclusively with its own followers the 100 seats of the Commission for drafting a new constitution, so that Copts and even Azhar representatives resigned and withdrew from the Commission. End of March 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood finally nominated with Khairat al-Shater its own candidate for the presidential election in June 2012.

Khairat al-Shater, who on 4 April in an interview explicitly announced that his political goal was "the implementation of Sharia law," has a good chance of being elected. In the Egyptian press, however, the critical comments on the political dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood become more frequent: The Revolution of 2011 had replaced only the players but not broken down the authoritarian structures. The omnipresence of Hosni Mubarak's party, the National Democratic Party, had been replaced by the omnipresence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its FJP.


New Religious Players and Parties

After the overthrow of the long-time rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the new governments rescinded the control mechanisms and granted political freedom. These measures led to an explosion in civic engagement. Hundreds of new parties and organizations and a great number of new newspapers and magazines were founded. The Islamist movements took advantage of this opportunity: since the spring of 2011 they established numerous organizations.



With the exception of Morocco where the Islamist PJD party dominates the landscape of political parties and now leaves little scope for new religious-oriented parties, in all other North African states Islamist parties were re-established, or at least already existing parties legalized. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood not only founded on 30 April 2011 its own party, the FJP, it also offensively announced its intention to participate in shaping the future political process. It wanted initially to refrain from nominating an own presidential candidate, and only in March 2012 it surprisingly announced this move.

It was also a surprise that the Salafis, who have their supporters especially in the poorer sections of society and who virtually do not see themselves as a "political" movement, on 12 May 2011 decided to found a party, the Party of Light, chaired by Emad Abd El-Ghaffour. They wanted thus to implement better their concern, namely the reintroduction of Sharia law, in the political and parliamentary area. No surprise, however, was the legalization of the moderate Islamist Center Party Wasat, which was founded in 1996 as a splinter group from the Muslim Brotherhood. The already in 1974 founded Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir) has to date not been admitted. It speaks out against the Republic as form of government and pleads in favour of the reintroduction of the caliphate.


Militant Activists and Individual Preachers

In Tunisia since January 2011 more than 100 new parties, including several Islamist ones were founded. In addition to the Ennanda Party presided by Rachid Ghannouchi, these are e.g. the Party of Dignity and Equality, the Justice and Development Party, and the Party of the Nation. But the dominance of Ennanda ensures that these parties hardly appear in public life, and also in the elections in October 2011 they played no role. As in the case of Egypt, in Tunisia the Home Office denied the Islamic Liberation Party, the Salam Party and the Sunni Party the legalization.

In Algeria, in late 2011 the reform of the law on political parties had the result that the Home Office was provided with new guidelines for the registration of political parties. In accordance with the new regulations, in early 2012 several new Islamist parties, including the National Front for Change of Abdelmajid Menasra and Ahmad Jaballah's Front for Justice and Development were legalized. At a press conference on 2 April 2012, the leaders of the three Islamist parties associated in the "Green Alliance" (MSP - led by Bouguerra Soltani), the Algerian Ennanda (led by Fatah Rebai) and the reform movement (El Islah) of Hamlaoui Akouchi were confident of victory. They are convinced that they, due to their managerial staff and their programs, will win the for 10th May scheduled legislative elections for the Algerian National Assembly and thus complete the victory of Islamist parties in North Africa.

In Libya, there was also since 2011 a revival of Islamist thought. Although the elections to a 200-member Constituent National Assembly will only in June 2012 take place, the incumbent Transitional Council, which is led by the former judge Abd al-Jalil, stated on 3 August 2011 in its explanation of the provisional constitution that Libya would be a republic where Shariah law is applied. Several of the since summer 2011 newly formed political parties, including the in January 2012 founded Party for Reform and Development and the in early March founded party of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood (Party for Justice and Development) advocate this guideline and found a powerful ally in Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghariani, the chairman of the newly created Fatwa Council, the new supreme religious authority of Libya.

After the start of the political upheavals, the Islamist movement as a whole won room for maneuver and areas of freedom. Due to their actions, individual preachers and militant groups become time and again a talking point. However, it is difficult to assess the dimension of the Islamist movement beyond the parties. What is missing is a more detailed knowledge of their leaders, membership figure, and their readiness to use violence in order to enforce their societal goals. Their conception of society is usually reduced to one postulate, namely the reintroduction of Sharia law. Despite all the shortcomings of information about members and structures, a multitude of individual events, however, shows that these groups are dynamic and their members are characterized by high aggressiveness.

This applies especially to the Salafi groups that appear particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, but also in Algeria and Morocco: They are responsible for the attacks on bars or on women who, in their eyes, are not decorously dressed. In Tunisia, where they gather around the black Salafi banner, in Tunis on 9 October 2011 e.g. about 300 Salafis stormed the television channel Nessma TV because of the "blasphemous" broadcast of the film "Persepolis". Since the end of 2011 at the University of Manouba militant supporters of the movement, dressed in burqas, want to fight by sit-ins and blockades for the admission of the niqab (full veil) at the University.

End of March 2012 a Salafi student burned the Tunisian national flag - without a sharp backlash of the Ennanda government. Also end of March 2012, several hundred Salafis stormed the theatre in the center of Tunis, in order to force the removal of "un-Islamic" plays, attacked the Orthodox Church in Tunis, Avenue Mohamed VI, and on 5 April in Le Kef Salafis set a school on fire in protest against the ban on the niqab.



In Egypt, the Salafis gather around eloquent preachers like Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, Abdel Moneim El Shahat, Sheikh Yassir al-Burhami or Sheik Abi Ishaq al-Huwayni. In Tunisia they have Saif Allah Ben Hassine alias Abou Yadh as charismatic leader. They try to expand their influence especially through the control of mosques. According to Tunisian data, early in April 2012 already about 10 percent of the 5000 Tunisian mosques are controlled by Salafis (in Algeria, up to 80 percent of the mosques are supposed to be outside of state control through the Ministry of Religious Affairs; especially in large cities Salafis control important mosques in densely populated residential areas), so that even the more moderate Ennanda is worried about this rivalry.

But it was Ennanda that in the last months ensured by inviting prominent fundamentalist Wahhabi preachers from Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, as e.g. Sheikh Wajdi Ghunim, and by organizing tours for these preachers that their pleas about the reintroduction of female circumcision and the introduction of Islamic criminal law, combined with anti-Zionist tirades of hate and invocations against Jews were uncontradicted spread among the population (see about the "triumphal tour" of Sheikh Ghunim:

In the western-Tunisian Jendouba in early March 2012 a group of young Salafis practiced vigilante justice, as it amputated the hand of a caught thief by applying Sharia law. On 11 March 2012 in Tunis the Imam Lotfi Kallel was murdered by a "group of men with full beards" because of his liberal views. In this context, Arab newspapers said that especially Tunisia, or the "Arab West" (Maghreb) has currently become fertile ground for the Wahhabi mission.


Destruction of Sufi Shrines

Since the second half of 2011, a special phenomenon can be observed in Libya, and since early 2012 in Tunisia: the destruction of Sufi shrines and marabouts, i.e. shrines of Saints. In popular folk Islam they play an important role, but for Salafis they are idolatry. The desecration of such shrines as well as of Christian graves and war graves from the Second World War was first reported from Libya, where the Salafi movement became active particularly in the conservative eastern Libyan province Barqa (Cyrenaica) .

Already in the nineties the most Libyan jihadists came from Cyrenaica. In Afghanistan they fought side-by side with Osama Ben Laden. After the liberation of the country from the rule of Qadhafi in February 2011, hundreds of radical Islamists had quickly reorganized and joined forces in heavily armed groups (with names like Katiba Abu Talib, etc.). Their brigades fought either against Qadhafi's forces, or consolidated the situation in Cyrenaica. After the overthrow of Qadhafi, they made their demands public: as e.g. the establishment of an eastern Libyan Emirate, where Sharia law should be applied. In March 2012, in western Libya the Salafis have tried several times to storm and destroy the famous tomb of Sidi al-Fituri Abdalsalam in Zliten. But until now the watchful local population was always able to prevent them from doing it.


Consequences for the Internal Development

But such developments are going too far even in the eyes of prominent Libyan Islamist preachers, as e.g. Sheikh Ali Muhammad al-Sallabi, who since 2011 make use of the new scope of action. In November 2011, Sallabi therefore founded a party, the National Gathering for Peace, Freedom and Justice. Based on the model of the Turkish ACP, it advocates a moderate Islam. At present, however, is completely open, which political or religious-political movement will dominate in Libya in the future.

The opening of the political scope of action in the North African states and, corresponding to it, the new dynamism of the Islamist movement has consequences for the political overall development of Egypt and the Maghreb states. Due to the transformation processes, the number of political players who want to intervene creatively in political and social processes has multiplied. The solution of the upcoming societal issues is thus delayed and more complicated. Just Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, but also Algeria, face an overdue reform of their constitutions. This will trigger heated debates.

Disputes are to be expected in particular about the following issues: the distinctive character of the new Constitution (presidential regime, parliamentary system), the role of religion in the post-revolutionary state (Has Sharia to be the source of jurisdiction or only one of the sources? Is it desirable at all that Sharia law becomes the reference point?), the question of how much central government and how much decentralization or federalism should be introduced, the question of how in the future the relationship between a planned economy and market economy should look like, and the questions of how (and how many) women- and minority rights should be protected constitutionally.



Currently, in all North African countries an increasing polarization between Islamists on one side and "non-Islamists" on the other side begins to emerge, though both camps are heterogeneous. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis and other Islamic groups hold quite diverging views on specific issues and their operational implementation, even if they agree on the aim: the introduction of the Islamic model of society, which ultimately has little regard for personal liberties. But also the group of "non-Islamists" who argue for a reduction of religious influence on politics is fragmented and covers a broad spectrum: It encompasses, for example, representatives of a tolerant Islam that is adapted to the modern age, atheists, followers of liberal, secular political ideas, and advocates of universal human rights and gender equality.

In Tunisia, these heterogeneous forces admittedly try currently to form a so-called "modernist pole", in order to pit their political skills against the Islamists. However, the high level of violence of the Salafi base and the Ennanda-Miliz give cause to fear that their physical and rhetorical aggressiveness is successful and the Islamist movement will prevail in the medium term. It is not a good omen, when e.g. the violent attacks in February 2012 on the Tunisian Professor Hamadi Redissi, who is well-known for his critical writings on religion, are not massively condemned by the Islamist-dominated government and the attackers are not prosecuted.

It is also not a good omen when the Ennanda leader Rachid Ghannouchi said in an interview that the youth must not be influenced by the ideas of Redissi Hamadi or Mohamed Talbi - who plead in favour of the abolition of Sharia law and a liberal Islam (see Hamadi Redissi: Le Pacte de Nadjd ou comment l'islam sectaire est devenu l'islam, Paris 2007, and: La Tragédie de l'islam moderne, Paris 2011; Mohamed Talbi: Plaidoyer pour un islam moderne, Paris 1998). The Islamists are currently generating a rising moralization pressure. There is reason to fear that the "Arab Spring" has brought the population not more freedom, but that authoritarianism has only changed color.


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