The Arab world is one of the most volatile regions in the world and plays a central role in global politics today. With its great diversity of peoples, languages, and cultures, it is also home to the fastest-growing religion in the world. Add to that immense socio-economic and political transformation, the highest percentages of youth in the world, and massive financial and strategic mineral resources, it certainly is one of the most crucial areas of global studies today.
Overview of the Arab region
The Middle East extends from Libya to the Hindu Kush, a mountainous region bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. North Africa lies between the Mediterranean and the Sahara Desert. These two areas are home to some twenty countries where both assets and difficulties abound. The assets relate to cultural, civilizational, and symbolic factors, to the wealth of hydrocarbons, or to the plural character of the region from the geographical, ethnic, linguistic, demographic, political, economic, and religious points of view.
But the other side of the coin is less glamorous. Indeed, the Middle East and North Africa face a plethora of problems. Authoritarian regimes, Islamist terrorism, and conflicts are legion: insurgency in Afghanistan, inter-state conflicts (Iran-Iraq, Iraq-Kuwait), struggles for independence and civil wars (Yemen, Iraq, and Syria), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, foreign interventions, etc., In addition, the region has a poorly diversified economy – with the exception of Israel and Turkey – that is essentially dependent on hydrocarbons; low population growth and a young population – one-third of the population is under 15 years of age – which poses enormous challenges in terms of education and employment; poorly performing agriculture; a high unemployment rate; and scarce water resources. Among the difficulties facing the region, one must point out the weakness of national unity and state legitimacy, and the fact that the national borders inherited from colonization do not correspond to ethnic and religious realities.
Religion, society, and politics
Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, the three monotheistic religions, coexist there. Islam, the dominant religion in the Middle East (370 million Muslims, 75% Sunni and 25% Shi’a), is an element of cohesion, but also of rivalry between its two main currents, Shi’a and Sunni. Paradoxically, the rivalries are becoming more acute as Islam gains strength in the region. The current conflicts in Iraq and Syria illustrate this. Also, geographically and territorially, diversity is both an asset and a nightmare. For example, the desert, the predominant geographic form in the region, is a commercial space (previously used by gold and slave caravans), an oil field, a favorite place for terrorist groups and trafficking of all kinds (as in the Sahel and the Sahara), as well as an area of geopolitical rivalry (between Algeria and Morocco over Western Sahara, between Saudi Arabia and Yemen over the oil slicks).
In the Middle East, as in North Africa, there are many states aspiring to hegemony, but none of them is strong enough to be the undisputed leader, despite considerable assets. The strategy of Iran, the only Shiite power in the heart of the Middle East with a large population (77 million), seems to be reduced to hostility towards Israel, which it accuses of being a relay for the United States. Turkey, a member of the G20, well-positioned in Eurasia between land and sea with a diversified economy, and Israel, a country with a predominantly Jewish population and the only democracy in the region with a well-equipped and professional army, could not do better. In the Arab world, the same is true of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In North Africa, Algeria, with its considerable energy resources, and Morocco, with its strategic and diplomatic advantages, would like to become leaders. However, the competing interactions between Algiers and Rabat pose obstacles to regional integration in the Maghreb. Moreover, all of the above countries, whether Arab or not, have to deal with the turmoil of minorities: the Iranian cultural mosaic, the Kurds in Turkey, the Palestinian enclaves in Israel or in the occupied territories, the Saharawis in Morocco, or the Kabyles in Algeria.
This state of affairs leads the states of the Middle East and the Maghreb to favor bilateral relations with external powers. In any case, the strategic position of the Middle East, its symbolic stakes, and its natural resources make it, unquestionably, “the epicenter of world geopolitics” and a place of competition for world powers. While China exerts increasing influence in the region in response to its energy dependence, Russia wants to neutralize its support for Sunni radicalism in Chechnya and break the encirclement it feels it is under from the United States. The United States, for its part, wants to reduce instability, secure its oil supply, provide military defense for its suppliers such as Saudi Arabia, contain Iran, protect Israel, fight terrorism and promote democracy. For their part, the European Union states are taking advantage of the colonial legacy, with the aim of warding off illegal immigration and maintaining their presence and a favorable trade balance, thanks to the export of high value-added finished products to the Middle East and North Africa, especially to the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries, which they have tried to integrate into a Euro-Mediterranean regional space.
At the end of the 19th century, the first movement describing itself as Salafi developed among historians and so-called reformist Muslim intellectuals, whose leading figures were the Persian Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, the Egyptian Mohammed Abduh, and the Syrian Rachid Ridha. They advocated a return to the sources of Islam in order to oppose a double existential threat: European colonization and the Ottoman presence. Elitist and resolutely modernist, this first Salafist current is at the origin of the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hassan al-Banna in 1928.
Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood wants to be in the continuity of the reformers of the previous decades. In this, they maintain that Islam must set the guidelines for their society and that they are opposed to the blind imitation of the European model. They wanted to be innovative, not by inventing a new Islam, but by strengthening and sticking to dogmatic religious principles. To do this, the movement gives a significant place to homegrown ijtihad, an effort of reflection for the interpretation of religious texts by adopting severe interpretations. The ijtihad depends largely on the Islamic jurisprudence adopted fiqh and allows, or not, to go towards certain innovations bid’a. Finally, if the Brothers have remained close to Sufism for a long time, their doctrine has gradually pushed them away from pietism in favor of political and social commitment. In particular, they were opposed to the secularization movement that was then taking place in Egypt.
The main guidelines of the movement were established during the twentieth century and were based on three characteristics:
- A conservative Islam, which claims to be the reformist Salafism mentioned above.;
- A program of Islamization from below with proselytism based on the social values of Islam: equality, charity, sharing. Finally, legalism; and
- The condemnation of violence.
In parallel, Salafism was born in Saudi Arabia in the 1920s. The latter, rejecting rationalism, has an antipathy to the Salafi theologians of the 19th century, with whom it should not be confused. It claims to be the heir of the thought of the thirteenth-century theologian, Ibn Taymiyya, as well as that of the founder of Wahhabism, Mohammed Ben Abd al-Wahhab (18th century). As early as 1936, the Saudi authorities claimed the term “Salafism” instead of “Wahhabism”.
The two main currents of Sunni Islamism were thus born at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century and, already, significant ideological-religious divergences are visible. In order to understand its fundamentalist or modernist character, the study of a current of thought in Islam requires looking at the place it gives to ijtihad. This is the effort of reflection that believers undertake to interpret the founding texts of Islam. While the modernist Salafists of the late 19th century advocated a reinterpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah in accordance with the principles of scientific rationality and liberal governance, contemporary Salafists, rejecting rationalism, are said to follow the Hanbali school, which advocates a rigorous literal reading of the texts without interpretation.
The Arab Spring crystallizes geopolitical rivalries between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists
Political Islam was already represented before the emergence of the Arab revolts by political formations that can be described as Islamic-conservative. This qualification had been used to designate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), sometimes a source of inspiration for certain formations in Arab countries. In Egypt, before 2011, if it is not allowed to participate directly in the electoral polls, the Muslim Brotherhood Organization is represented in Parliament through other formations of Brotherhood inspiration in the legislative elections (in 2005, this movement won 20% of the seats). In Morocco, the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) is part of the same ideological movement but presents itself as a national party. It has participated in legislative elections since 1997 and became the leading opposition party a few years later. In Algeria, the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) became the main opposition party. It claims to be based on the Brotherhood’s ideology and participated in various governments in the 2000s. In Yemen and Libya, Islamist groups entered the political game, without becoming the majority. Finally, in Gaza, Hamas, created in 1987, is part of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. It won parliamentary elections in 2006.
The Muslim Brotherhood thus imposed itself as a pole of stability during the Arab Spring. The old Brotherhood was well established in most of the countries of the region and had political experience and even experience of power for certain branches. The democratization brought about by the Arab springs logically enough brought the parties that are part of the Brotherhood to power in new countries: in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. One thing seems to be clear everywhere: it seems impossible to democratize without including the Muslim Brotherhood in the political game.
This seizure of power by the brothers is supported by the Turkish-Qatari axis. The AKP, which combines Muslim ethics with the spirit of capitalism, was a reference point for Washington under President Obama. For the gas-rich but sparsely populated Qatari emirate, it is an opportunity to have demographic relays that will enable it to stand up to its powerful Saudi neighbor, which on the contrary sees the Brotherhood as its major rival for the hegemony of Arab Sunnism. For Ankara, support for the Muslim Brotherhood has a double logic. On the one hand, it is a question of encouraging the emergence of Islamist governments, responding to a base of common values. On the other hand, it is a way to have a relay of regional influence capable of encouraging Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions. This game of regional power rivalries led to a diplomatic and economic rupture between Doha and Riyadh in July 2017.
The Salafists are therefore used by counter-revolutionary forces to reduce the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood wherever possible. The Brotherhood was dissolved in several countries (Egypt in 2014, Jordan in 2020) or the Salafist networks were able to occupy a political space that had become vacant. While Saudi Arabia exerts a diffuse influence on the Salafist nebula in the Arab and Muslim world, Riyadh’s control over them remains limited, which explains the risk of “jihadization” of Salafist lands. For example, Salafism is doubly represented in Tunisia, on the one hand by small groups represented in the National Assembly, and on the other by dissidents from Ennahdha who have created an organization that advocates violence, Ansar ash-Shari’a, which is listed as a terrorist organization.
Second, according to the U.S. NGO Coptic Solidarity (2017), Egypt is increasingly becoming an “ecosystem” conducive to jihadist violence. President Sissi is allowing Salafists to dominate the public sphere, spreading their hate speech in state media and school curricula. This leads to increasing violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. The eradication of Christian festivals and places of worship being a constant in the Salafist doctrine, the jihadists implement it simultaneously in all the territories they control (Syria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt). Under the regime of Sissi, jihadism has begun to proliferate again, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula.
Faced with the Arab Spring, the reaction is therefore centered on military or civilian autocrats (Sissi, Haftar, Hadi) and Salafist political parties. They are supported by Saudi Arabia and its allies, who see the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat. Indeed, it is likely to challenge the religious and political legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy. Close to its regional competitors, the Muslim Brotherhood advocates a political model that threatens the durability of Saudi hereditary monarchical power. In addition, they challenge the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy to rule over the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
Arab Springs and the democratization process
Because of the great chaos, they generated in the region, the Arab Springs were quickly considered a failure. With the notable exception of Tunisia, these revolts led to civil wars (Syria, Libya, Yemen) or strict authoritarian backlashes (Egypt, Bahrain). In the eyes of the West, they even had the bad taste of putting the societies of the region in a dilemma: authoritarianism or Islamist dictatorship? However, this overly simplistic analysis deserves to be qualified insofar as the Arab Springs deserve to be understood in the long term.
The Arab Springs began in late 2010. They stemmed from the demand of the liberal youth for an in-depth reform of their country’s political system and of a part of the population for improved economic development and social justice. From then until the summer of 2011, the process led to three different scenarios:
- The timid protest movements in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, and Algeria were quickly curbed;
- Elsewhere, communal rivalries exploded in states where social cohesion was only a facade: in Yemen, Syria, and Libya; and
- Finally, the Arab Spring led to a democratic transition that resulted in the political integration of Islamist parties derived from the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. Within a year, democratic elections were held in these three countries. However, the culture of democracy has not yet been achieved, as electoral practice alone is not enough to establish it. In Egypt, the Islamists have taken hold at all levels and won the parliamentary elections in January 2012 and the presidential elections in June. But their inexperience with power and lack of strategic vision cost them their legitimacy: they were overthrown in July 2013. Conversely, Islamist parties have obtained a lasting parliamentary majority in Tunisia and Morocco: without ever governing, Ennahdha has become the leading political force in Tunisia, while the PJD has headed the Moroccan government since 2011 until 2021.
Despite the return and modernization of authoritarian models (“democracies”) coupled with the use of Salafist religious conservatism as a tool to control emancipation demands, the democratization process initiated by the Arab Springs has not disappeared. New visible or clandestine spaces of protest exist today, and the revolutionary experience continues to act thanks to a generation that has not consumed its youth. The construction of a truly democratic culture requires, among other things, the structuring of civil society, an awareness of its citizenship, and the overcoming of ethnic and religious divisions. These themes have animated the many demonstrations that have emerged again in Tunisia and Morocco in 2018, and that have shaken Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan in 2019. Thus, the democratization process has not said its last word. The Arab springs are infusing the societies of the region and are bound to cause new upheavals. This is why we cannot speak of the “failure” of Arab Springs. History is not over.
National developments and regional outlook
It is true that the Arab springs did not immediately generate a genuinely democratic culture, but they did give concrete expression to democratic practices. They have opened up a new space for visible or invisible speech that authoritarian regimes are trying to curb by various means. On the population side, there is a growing structuring of civil societies, an awareness of citizenship, and an overcoming of ethnic and religious divisions. The demand for citizenship, and the rights that flow from it, are among the slogans that are regularly heard in demonstrations from Baghdad to Beirut. The process of democratization of societies and their ruling classes is infusing the countries of the region at unequal speeds. When the political regime allows it, the Brotherhood formations are also developing their democratic culture. A “post-Islamism” hybrid between its Islamist origins and the democratic system would then find its place in the wake of the “Arab springs”.
We have seen that where free elections have been held, their results have shown that the Brotherhood-inspired formations are a significant political force in the region. However, their political integration is not self-evident and, after the hopes raised by the Arab Springs, the reactions against democratization have limited their integration. Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood is considered a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, and Bahrain. In July 2020, the Jordanian branch of the organization was banned. Yet it appears that by closing the path to democracy, authoritarian powers are providing indirect, but very real, support to the most radical organizations.
The return and strengthening of dictatorial governments, embodied by the figure of al-Sissi in Egypt, and the repression against the Brotherhood, risk fueling more radical Islamism. The assimilation of the Muslim Brotherhood with jihadist terrorist organizations (Islamic State, al-Qaeda) is driving many Brotherhood militants underground. This amalgamation strengthens the arguments of radical movements that hope to recruit among the Brotherhood’s supporters who are most inclined to turn to violence. In an even more pessimistic scenario, in the same way as with Said Qutb in the 1960s, the Brotherhood could see an internal split of one of its branches ready to embrace jihadism.
The attitude of the leader of the jihadist network al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, speaks for such a move. This Egyptian religious figure has long vilified the Brotherhood, notably in a document entitled “The Bitter Harvest”, in which he describes the Muslim Brotherhood as “traitors” and “apostates”. He criticized them for being accomplices of ungodly political regimes that accept secularism and democracy. Moreover, in 1992, he joined Hassan at-Turabi in Khartoum in an attempt to form an international rival to the Muslim Brotherhood by bringing together all the radicals. Al-Zawahiri may not have forgotten this project when he addressed the Egyptian Brotherhood in the aftermath of al-Sissi’s coup of July 3, 2013, telling them in essence: we told you so, the democratic path is blocked.
Despite criticism of their authoritarian tendencies (shared with many other political forces in the region), their sectarianism, or their neoliberal economic agenda, it is undeniable that the Muslim Brotherhood is now part of the political landscape, and if repressing them sets back democracy, it does not set back their ideas. On the contrary, by demonizing them, one forgets the difficulties they had in governing when they were in power between 2012 and 2013 with Mohamed Morsi as president. Thus, in the eyes of the population, the illusion persists. The more repression and demonization there is, the more the myth, the fantasy of the Muslim Brotherhood, remains intact.
According to a survey, a third of the Egyptian population continues to have a positive view of the Brotherhood despite the official communication of the regime. While it may appear to be effective, the strategy of banning, criminalizing, repressing, and demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood may prove to be double-edged. On the one hand, it does not reduce the social influence of the Brotherhood, and on the other hand, it risks pushing its members towards a more radical vision of their commitment.
In parallel, the Salafist movements are not in the same boat. At the call of the ulemas close to the Saudi regime, a good number of Salafists have distanced themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood by stripping their religiosity of any protest expression. The Salafist movement, which has its origins in the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, is predominantly quietist and advocates obedience to any ruler, even one who is “corrupt and autocratic,” as long as he does not refuse to call himself a Muslim. Thus, from Yemen to Egypt or Morocco, the Salafists, in many respects less modernist than the Brotherhood, have paradoxically been able to win the favor of regimes reputed to be modernizers, which saw in this electoral abstinence an instrument for weakening their opposition.
Finally, it should be remembered that while the ban on the forms of political Islam that the Brotherhood parties embody is one of the conditions leading to the emergence and development of jihadist movements, it is by no means the only one. Socio-economic problems, frustration with great inequality, and corruption are often at the forefront of the causes of the spread of violent ideologies.
In light of this, Egypt today can be considered to have a number of factors that could lead to an increase in jihadist risk and a deterioration of its security situation in the coming years. Moreover, the countries of Central Asia (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in particular) are characterized by their strict authoritarianism, leaving little room for forms of political expression, and fragile economies that are often based on hydrocarbon revenues. Therefore, at a time of Islamic revival in Central Asia, they also constitute a potential focus for the proliferation of Salafist-jihadist ideology.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu