Political Trends in the Al Sharq Region after the Arab Uprisings

The regional and international orders are currently in a process of reshaping amidst a concurrent and simultaneous crisis of liberal democracy and state institutions not only in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) but also in the West. There is a rightward move in the current global context marked by ultranationalism, xenophobia and distrust that manifests even among traditional allies like the United States (US), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union (EU).

Alongside a crumbling Western-backed order in the MENA region, the foreign policies of the US, the UK and France are nebulous with unclear demarcations besides ostensible withdrawal or arms sales. This has resulted in a vacuum in the MENA region that has been increasingly occupied by new regional players with a perceived growing influence of Russia and China. The hardening of the alliance between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and their rapprochement to Israel have maintained a hostile milieu towards political Islam movements (PIMs). 

This roundtable meeting was complementary to an event held by Al Sharq Forum in February 2018, titled “ Political Trends after Arab uprisings: The Transformation of Political Islam in a Changing Regional (Dis-)Order”.

This event, which brought together political Islam leaders, activists, and academics studying political Islam movements, aimed to map: the regional and international changes and the threats and opportunities they carry to PIMs in the MENA region and the institutional and ideological transformations as a response to (post-) Arab spring changing politics. There was also a special focus given to the debate about the effects of political exclusion on the dynamics of moderation of PIMs. 

The Changing Approaches of Regional and International Actors

Features of the new US foreign policy

The US, under Trump’s presidency, is marked to be increasingly behaving as a market actor across all of the state’s functions. Trump’s foreign policy towards the Middle East is animated by a market rationality that can be summarized by a “Pay me and I do” motto, as phrased by one participant. Besides, the finishing off of the Palestinian cause is of a primary foreign policy concern for Trump. An issue of disagreement between discussants was the notion commonly referred to as the US withdrawal from the MENA region.

As argued, the US is actively driving the closure of the Palestinian cause and meanwhile providing support to Israel and the military-led regime in Cairo, and has ended the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to pressure Iran out of Syria. However, there are peculiar features to the modus operandi of this policy: the US relationship with the region is being built on a person-to person basis rather than institution-to institution marked by an increasing role for social media, mainly Twitter, which is rendering this policy volatile, manipulable and unpredictable but equally, if not more, damaging.

Ascending Actors in the MENA region: Russia and China.

After being excluded from the region in the aftermath of the Cold War, Russia reentered the region as a powerful actor through Syria, following a sense of being double-crossed by the Western powers in Libya. Russia’s intervention in the region is entirely and aggressively interest-driven with no useful objectives or strategies for the development of the region. 

Domestically, the developments within Russia have been drifting further towards the right with Putin consolidating a strong authoritarian government. This reflects regionally in Russia’s Islamophobic approach to Political Islam movements with the exception of Hamas considered by Russia as a bargaining chip, according to one participant. An alliance between Russia and Israel is growing at the expense of the Palestinians as Netanyahu increasingly finds Russia more useful in the Levant and is able to manage an alliance with both the US and Russia.

As the Syrian war comes to an end, Russia will present as the primary challenge to be dealt with for Iran especially if Russia responds positively to a US offer to push Iran out of Syria in exchange for keeping Assad in power. Simultaneously, Turkey and Iran are driving closer to what might emerge as a wary alliance given that neither parties really trust each other. However, post-Syria they are expected to move closer towards each other.

China is engaging in the MENA region much less militaristically than Russia, driven mainly by its own economic interests rather than political ideology or development-oriented regional agendas. China follows a compartmentalized approach in dealing with its domestic Muslim population and its foreign policy towards Islamist regimes: while it adopts a repressive domestic policy towards the Uygur Muslim communities at home, its foreign policy towards Muslim countries led by Islamist regimes (e.g. Pakistan and Iran) is driven by interest. In general, China’s approach to PIMs is pragmatic, which makes rapprochement with countries led by PIMs primarily dependent upon mutual interests. 

Regional Situation

The regional situation is not expected to witness significant changes in the short run due to the lack of both regional and international factors. In the long run, the accumulation of contradictory policies pursued by autocratic establishments might lead to social, political change, and shifts in regional alliances . Internationally, as a speaker contended, there is constant tension within strong democracies to move towards a non-fixed center. With the limited time remaining for Trump’s presidency, there will be a backlash that could push in the opposite direction, and this could also be the case in the EU.

However, in the meantime, the rise of right wing populism in Europe is discouraging constructive dialogue with PIMs in the MENA region. Moreover, the absence of an atmosphere of freedom along with the pressures of migration do not allow constructive reassessments and redirecting as PIMs tend more towards victimization and defensiveness. Nevertheless, PIMs are in need of such reassessments in order to aptly respond to changing orders. 

PIMs are facing a host of internal and external pressures pushing them in opposite directions. Rising voices from within in the MENA region are urging their movements to reform in an atmosphere of pressure on multiple levels. A conflicting trend driven by internal pressures is also pushing PIMs to more conservative stances making PIMs less likely to implement any potential reforms, at least in the short-run.

Both approaches are, in part, driven by the international context, that saw the rise of right-wing populist movements to power, especially in countries in the Western hemisphere. The rise of some of these movements in the West, which is partly attributed to the conflict in the MENA region and the ensuing refugee influx, have contributed to the further securitization of perceptions of PIMs in the WANA region and the wider geographic arena. The international context is also being shaped by the responses and pressures of state actors in the MENA region that are antagonistic to PIMs and their ideology.

Regional polarization has pushed some PIMs from different sides of the spectrum to insulation, at least on the level of some factions. Some PIMs in the MENA region developed protective tactics that allowed them to maneuver through, considering the experiences they gained from monitoring the behaviour of other movements that were involved in chapters of domestic and regional turmoil.

In certain cases, according to an Egyptian scholar, some state actors deliberately attempted to push PIMs to the right-side of the political-ideological spectrum in order to provide justification for cracking down on them and uprooting them. Operating in a politically highly polarized region and both, shaping it and being shaped by it in a mutually constitutive manner, PIMs are more inclined to regress to protect and insulate themselves from conflicts that they could potentially be dragged into. As for the movements that are already involved in conflicts, they are keen on avoiding being bogged in more conflicts, according to one senior Tunisian Islamist participant.

The Effects of Political Inclusion and Exclusion on PIMs Strategy and Ideology 

Addressing the main question of whether political groups have a tendency towards moderation or radicalization in cases of political inclusion and exclusion, participants attended to various understandings of the descriptive terms (radicalization/moderation) through an examination of the practice and strategies of several PIM, mainly in Syria, Morocco and Egypt, and concluded with an emphasis on the limited usefulness of the descriptive terms (radicalization /moderation) if not employed in more complex and nuanced categorizations.

Generally, moderation is employed in three different meanings: 1) Supporting or opposing liberal democratic reforms; 2) acceptance or rejection of the existing systems and 3) the usage of violent means to drive change.

Supporting or opposing liberal democratic reforms: In this understanding, moderates and radicals are typically viewed in terms of their involvement in political negotiations towards liberal democratic reform. One of the participants laid out three political settings or frames within which PIMs are influenced. 

First, a transitional, reformist, and integrative frame within which PIMs underwent fundamental changes and in certain cases moved further towards unbundling religious reform and political practice. Examples within this category include Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement, the continuing divergence between Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (JDP) and Movement for Unity and Reform (MUR), a process that commenced in the late 90s of the 20th century), and Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (following a peace agreement).

Second, a transitional, quasiauthoritarian, and semi-integrative frame within which semi-integration and political openings lead to partial changes in PIMs. This is exemplified in the case of the Egyptian MB prior to the Arab Spring, undergoing gradual but fluid changes that lead to their participation in the Arab Spring protests. This also manifested during their rule in which the MB established a political party, but did not fundamentally move political policyand decision-making from the movement to the party.

One participant argued that the MB would not have participated in the Arab Spring if no internal changes had taken place. However, those changes are partial and reflect on the relationship of the Egyptian MB to others. According to another participant’s account, “Jabhat al-inqath” called al-Gannoushi in May 2013 to mediate some demands to Morsi in order to diffuse the crisis but there was no response to al-Gannoushi because the Egyptian MB considered him to be “ideologically too mild”. 

Third, a conflictive frame, under an increasingly authoritarian environment, PIMs either radicalize or become insular. The Syrian MB is an example for such a transformation after the onset of the Syrian revolution in 2011. Aspects of this were also manifest in the fissures created in the aftermath of the crackdown on the Egyptian MB post-2013 coup.

Acceptance or rejection of the existing systems: Moderation and radicalization are typically used to reflect a general position of acceptance or rejection of the existing systems. According to such an understanding, most PIMs seem to have been undergoing the moderation process before the Arab Spring. Long before the Arab spring, many PIMs (especially the Egyptian MB and its sister movements) adopted a centralized nation-state as the starting point for their political visions and schemes, instead of a body politic comprised of the larger Muslim Ummah (collectivity), and have already participated in the electoral systems of their respective countries.

However, with the advent of the Arab spring, the Egyptian MB came to grips with the question of reform vs. revolution, a question that continues to be a matter of contention within the group and one that costed the group large sectors of its youth who relinquished any path other than the revolutionary path towards democratization. Accordingly, political exclusion is correlated with radicalization. However, it is a radicalization that is not necessarily military.

On the contrary, it is a form of radicalization towards democracy and democratic values. Thus, the concept of moderation becomes complicated when we map onto it the binary of reform and revolution as means to achieve democratic change: the leaders of the PIMs who are considered relatively pragmatic and flexible (reformist) in their engagement with ruling regimes and rivaling political parties are simultaneously supportive of sustaining the rigid and hierarchical structure of their organizations.

However, revolutionary elements (radicals) ask for fundamental changes in the existing system towards democratization and feud with organizational bodies over internal reforms. Two categories emerge out of the above: Conservative within/ reformist without and reformist within / radical without. 

However these categories are more useful in analyses based on biographical trajectory for Islamists that can be traced on the individual level rather than the Macro-level of analyzing PIMs which can help better comprehend the transformations of Islamists and PIMs. Researchers should move away from thinking about the MB, and other PIMs as an exceptional or monolithic organization and need to start focusing on the individual rather than the social movement itself in if they really need to learn anything new.

(De)Militarization: (De)militarization is also regarded as a dimension in which moderation is understood. In that regard, the positions of PIMs on the usage of violent means to drive change can be divided into four categories:

First, a large camp that oppose, in principle, the usage of radical means to political change, largely led by MB movements (or MB ideologicallyoriented) that abandoned this path (the Egyptian MB in the 50s and 60s of the 20th century). MBs are largely opposed to the deployment of violent means against local authorities, but encourage their usage against invading forces (Israeli occupation in Palestine and American forces in Iraq). However, there is not consensus between MB movements, in reference to Syria and Yemen.

Second, a camp of PIMs that resorted tactically to the deployment of violent means against local authorities on a defensive-basis to protect themselves from eradication. This includes Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front as an example.

Third, a large camp that subscribes to the Salafi Jihadi ideology that encourages the deployment of violent means to bring about social and political change. This not only comes as a result of a belief in the effectiveness of this mean, but also its legitimacy.

Fourth, a camp of primarily Shia PIMs (and a few Sunni PIMs) that rely on a dual structure composed of a political party and a paramilitary force (quiet similar to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s dual structure). This includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ansar Allah (known as the Houthi movement) in Yemen, an array of mainly Shia paramilitary forces in Iraq (now under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units). Sunni PIMs that have such a structure include Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Palestine.

Beyond emulation of foreign models, these movements resort to establishing such a structure because they feel insecure, and therefore a ‘rescue network’ represented in an armed wing is needed for them to preserve their presence (and this turns into a norm). Importantly, (de-)militarization in PIMs is not always a harmonious process, where factional, and individuals (sub-factional) have sway over the direction of a PIM, that can push it either way, or cause fragmentation.

Cases of some PIMs in Syria, Egypt and Morocco

1) PIMs in Syria

Taking the case of Syria, PIMs were influenced by a myriad factors that shaped their identities, ideology, and strategies. The leading albeit insignificant PIM, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, was gradually engulfed by an array of Salafi Jihadist movements that did not exist in Syria prior to the revolution. A considerable number of the Salafi Jihadist fighters in Syria are not Syrian nationals, which adds more importance to distinguishing between Syria’s Islamist movement(s) (national) and Salafi Jihadist groups that have emerged considering the transformation of the revolution into an armed conflict/civil war.

Contrary to the Tunisian case in which neighbours and interested state actors sought its stability, in Syria, a segment of interested state actors aimed to instrumentalize the Syrian revolution against Iran (an ally of the Syrian government), while another segment sought to prop up the transforming revolution and specific nonstate actors within it to incorporate the movement in its emerging regional axis. In Syria, the national Islamist movement was further marginalized/contained in favour of what a Syrian expert described as a process in which the Salafi Jihadist discourse was ‘popularized’ amongst Syrian nationals, without disseminating the core ideology itself. 

In the case of the Syrian MB, the movement was widely repressed by the Syrian authorities in the 80s, which led to the minimization of their presence within the country, making them one of the least influential movements following the onset of the Syrian revolution. However, many MB-likeminded movements and individuals were active.

The MB as a movement tried to reconnect with the Syrian homeland from exile via participating and establishing relief, civil, and political institutions and platforms. Ahrar al-Sham were influenced by how the MB was repressed, and by the American invasion of Iraq, which transformed them into a Salafi Jihadi-oriented movement.