Who's to blame for the Islamists' fall?
Islamists who came to power in Egypt and Tunisia on the heels of the 2011 uprisings say the challenges they faced were too immense to fix quickly, but critics say their missteps are to blame.
Cairo; Tunis, Tunisia
AfterÂ historicÂ electoral victories less than two years ago, the political demise of Egyptâs Muslim Brotherhood and increasing troubles of Tunisiaâs Islamists raises the question: Was their first shot at governance doomed to fail by immense challenges and vindictive opponents, or did their own misstepsÂ helpÂ precipitate their downfall?
In the streets of Cairo and Tunis, citizens riven by a tumultuous transition cast blame in nearly every direction. They are probably all at least partly right.
IslamistÂ partiesÂ swept into powerÂ at a moment of tremendous social, economic, and political upheaval.Â They had no experience inÂ governance,Â let aloneÂ amid that muchÂ turmoil. While theyÂ received a plurality of votes,Â they faced formidable political opposition.
âIslamists were always going to have difficulty governing, but not because theyâre Islamist,âÂ says Henry Smith, a North Africa analyst from the British risk assessment firm Control Risks.Â âAny political party would have faced the same structural and institutional problems.â
Yet even accounting for the magnitude of the challenges before them, their inexperience, and the opposition they faced, many say that both the Muslim Brotherhoodâs Freedom and Justice Party and Ennahda in Tunisia made key strategic mistakes that weakened their hand â and, in the case of Egypt, led to theirÂ fall from power.
Now, as the Brotherhood seeks to reinstate President Mohammed Morsi after the military ousted him onÂ July 3, how Egypt responds is likely to have implications not only for its fledgling democracy but also abroad â especially in Tunisia, where Ennahda is facingÂ a re-energizedÂ opposition.
âThe fall of the Brotherhood can be a turning point on the trajectory of political Islam in the region,â says Khalil al-Anani, a Durham University scholar of Islamist movements who has been in Cairo this summer. âItâs a very uncertain future, and this will depend on one thing: the willingness of the new regime in Egypt to include them and to build real democracy in Egypt. If this does not happen âŚ the consequences will be hard for Egypt, the region, and for the world itself.â
Islamists' rise to power
After decades of persecution and marginalization,Â Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia finally ascended to powerÂ viaÂ the ballot box in the wake of the ArabÂ uprisings.
Both the Muslim Brotherhoodâs Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Ennahda won the most votes in their respective elections in 2011. A coalition dominated by the FJP took 47 percent of Egyptâs parliamentary election, while EnnahdaÂ scoredÂ 42 percent in constituent assembly elections.
The Brotherhood gradually shed its coalition allies and Mohammed Morsi narrowly won the Egyptian presidency in June 2012.
The massive street protests on the anniversary of his election, which spurred the militaryâs deposing of Morsi, were driven in part by perceptions that the Brotherhood was trying to concentrate power in its own hands,Â breakingÂ previous promises to limit its parliamentary representation and sit out the presidential race.
Ennahda has taken a more collaborative approach. Today it heads a governing coalition with two secularist parties that dominates the constituent assembly, an interim legislature whose main task is writing a new constitution.
Ennahda has also been willing to compromise in political battles. Notably, it refrained from trying to mention sharia in the new constitution and abandoned its quest for a purely parliamentary system.
Yet the partyâsÂ popularity has sunk amid economic malaise and security concerns. Unemployment hovers around 17 percent. Opposition parties accuse Ennahda of having failed to discipline the hardline Salafi movement, some of whose members are becoming increasingly violent.Â
Emboldened by the Brotherhoodâs ouster in Egypt, TunisiaâsÂ broadly secularist opposition parties are tryingÂ to drive Ennahda from power with persistent street demonstrations and political maneuvering. The dispute has stayed peaceful so far, but could set back Tunisiaâs democratic transition.
Circumstances and inexperience
In part, the Brotherhood and Ennahda were dealt a weak hand, say analysts. The protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt andÂ Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia also frightened off tourists and foreign investors,Â which were critical to both economies. And despite the unity of the popular uprisings,Â both populations quickly became polarizedÂ as they set about establishing new democracies.
In that context, no matter how stellar a president or his vision for the country may be, it is hard to move things forward if the state apparatusÂ does not support that vision, says Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad. âYou put a Formula 1 driver into a car with four flat tires, with no engine, no tank, and no steering wheel, itâs still not going toÂ drive.â
Yet both governments have also made avoidable mistakes, analysts say.
Due toÂ a combination of timidity and inexperience, Tunisiaâs new leaders missed opportunities to makeÂ badly needed economic reforms, says Jacob Kolster, North Africa director at the African Development Bank.
One example has been failure to rewrite the Ben Ali-era investment law, which would have brought in more foreign cash, he says.Â Â Instead,Â the government has offered unsustainable quick-fix measures such as massive public-sector hiring and wage increases. And it has made impossible promises of development to impoverished rural areas, fueling resentment.
âItâs normal that a government of inexperienced people needs time to find its way and develop ideas,âÂ says Mr. Kolster. âBut Tunisia needs to speed up that process. Unfortunately, things havenât moved.â
Opposition parties also complain that Ennahda and the FJP packed appointed positions with party stalwarts who lacked skills to govern â in some cases due in part to having been jailed for years by regimes who saw them as a threat.
âIslamist-led governments have put people in power whose main preparation has been an extended stint in prison, and who have no real experience in public policy and government,âÂ says Mr. Smith.
Dominant and undermined
In Egypt, the Brotherhood sought to bolster its lack of experience by sending delegations on more than 200 international visits in the first year. But as a movement that had long operated in secret, itÂ was predisposed to another trait that became a significantÂ handicap: a lack of transparency that had been crucial in the movementâs underground days but proved hugely detrimental for a ruling party.Â
According to a recent Gallup poll, public support for the Brotherhoodâs FJP fell from a high of 67 percent shortly after parliamentary elections to 19 percent just before Morsiâs ouster.
âThey couldnât overcome this ideology of having to keep everything secret and work underground,â says Ahmed Hosny of Gemaa Islamiyya,Â a former Islamist militant movement that renounced violence years ago in order to join politics.Â âThis was a big barrier, it created a big gap between them and the people.âÂ
A prime example of this was when Morsi unilaterally amended the constitutional declaration that was supposed to govern the transitional period and put himself â albeit temporarily â above judicial review. Morsiâs supporters described it as a necessary step to keep the revolution, including the writing of a new constitution, moving forward, but his opponents painted it as an unjustified power grab.
âIf this [new] constitutional declaration had been displayed as a revolutionary act by the president âŚ he wouldnât have appeared as a dictator to the people,â says Mr. Hosny. âBut this wasnât the case, he just surprised the people.â
Dr. Anani of Durham University acknowledges that the Brotherhood lacked the skills to deal with a very complicated country in transition. âBut on the other hand, there was a lot of resistance coming from the deep state, from state institutions that obstructed the Brotherhood from governing effectively,â he says, referring to the entrenched elements left over from Mubarakâs regime, also referred to asÂ felool. âIn the beginning they [the Brotherhood] tried to contain and accommodate the deep state.â
This was their biggest mistake, says Emad Shahin of the American University of Cairo, who connects the Brotherhood's approach to political reform with their religious attitudes. âLetâs make peace with them, letâs bring them to our side â this is the training of religious people âŚ proselytization.âÂ
The media, some of which is state-run, also undermined the Brotherhood.
â[Morsi] left many of these counterrevolutionary,Â feloolÂ elements loose â in the media, in the state apparatus, and in society,â adds Dr. Shahin. âIf he repressed 10 percent of what [military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah] Sisi is doing now, he would still be in power.â
The fact that the military retained key ministers from Morsiâs cabinet, including the minister of Interior, after ousting the president, may signal that they were aligned with the deep state all along and undermining Morsi unbeknownst to him.
âTo put it simply, instead of reforming the state, which is a very corrupt state, [the Brotherhood] tried to ride it,â says Anani. âIt seemed to me that they were riding a tiger and they couldnât control it and it seems to me that this tiger turned and ate them at the end.â
But not everyone sees it that way. Nadr Bakkar, spokesman of the Salafi Al Nour party, which has increasingly diverged from the Brotherhood, says the movement missed an opportunity to embrace some of those who supported Morsi over his opponent Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarakâs last prime minister.
âYou should realize that you are not in front of enemies,â says Mr. Bakkar. âYou have a chance to contain deep state by using other liberal and revolutionary powers who actually voted for you against Shafiq.â
Ennahda facing emboldened opposition
Critics have coined the term âballotocracyâ to describe the Brotherhoodâs perceived style of democracy,Â byÂ which even the slimmest majority of votes bestowsÂ the right toÂ impose ideologyÂ on others without making any concessions, says Mustafa Ellabbad, director of Al Sharq Center of Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Tunisian secularists often level similar criticism at Ennahda. Now,Â the Brotherhoodâs downfall has inspiredÂ Ennahdaâs opponentsÂ to renewÂ their demands that the party relinquish power. The July 25 murder of an opposition leader, the second this year, pushed anger to boiling point.
Opposition parties and the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers, the countryâs largest trade union, want the government dissolved. Some parties have said they want theÂ constituentÂ assembly dismantled, too. Meanwhile, 59 members of the 217-seat assembly are boycotting it to support opposition demands,Â according to Al Bawsala, an NGO that monitors the assembly.
Ennahda has called the antigovernment campaign an assault on democratic legitimacy. The party says itâs open to negotiating a national-unity cabinet but insists the assembly remain in place to finish the constitution.
On TuesdayÂ night, hours after assembly president Mustafa Ben Jaafar suspended the body pending talks to end the dispute, tens of thousands of protestors flooded the square outside the assembly building in the largest antigovernment rally yet. Some objected to Ennahdaâs religious leanings. But the underlying message was one of exhaustion.
âWeâve heard the government tell us âWe will improve thingsâ âŚ and then nothing,â says a protestor named Wajdi Chebbi, a young woodworker trying to provide for his ailing father and four younger siblings.
âLeaving religion aside, I just want a government that satisfies the peopleâs demands,â he says. âWhat was the revolution for? For work, for dignity, for rights.â