As Moderate Islamists Retreat, Extremists Surge Unchecked
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, The New York Times
June 19th, 2014
TUNIS — Islamist politicians swept elections across the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, stepping close to power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco and undermining the thesis of Qaeda-style militants that violence offered the only hope for change.
Today, those politicians are in frantic retreat from Riyadh to Rabat, stymied by their political opponents, stalked by generals and plotted against by oil-rich monarchs. Instead, it is the jihadists who are on the march, roving unchecked across broad sections of North Africa and the Middle East. Now they have seized control of territory straddling the borders of Iraq and Syria where they hope to establish an Islamic caliphate.
And they are reveling in their vindication.
“Rights cannot be restored except by force,” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the surging Qaeda breakaway group, declared last year after the Egyptian military removed President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood from office. Islamists must choose “the ammunition boxes over the ballot boxes” and negotiate “in the trenches rather than in hotels,” the group proclaimed, calling the more election-minded Muslim Brotherhood “a secular party in Islamic clothes” and “more evil and cunning than the secularists.”
Thwarted by the old guard and eclipsed by the jihadists, moderate Islamists in Egypt, Libya and Yemen and among the Syrian opposition are finding themselves shoved to the margins. And they are debating what went wrong, how to salvage their movement and how to revive the dream of synthesizing Islam and democracy. In Syria, too, moderate and secular rebels have been eclipsed by extremists in their battle against President Bashar al-Assad.
Many are lashing out furiously at the fundamentalists whom many moderate politicians hoped to tutor as political allies. Instead Egypt’s ultraconservative Salafis supported the military takeover, saying that it would limit social strife. And in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia, the violence of ultraconservative militants is hobbling efforts to build inclusive democratic states.
Some moderates play down their own mistakes, and insist that the main lessons to be learned are about the strength of their enemies, not their own shortcomings. Or they portray the reversal of their fortunes — even the killing of more than 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters by Egyptian security forces — as a kind of divinely ordained test to be endured.
But others, led by the moderate Islamists here in Tunisia, argue that the movement is partly to blame. They say that if moderates hope to counter the jihadists and build democracies, their parties must be much more inclusive and conciliatory toward non-Islamist rivals and even those who participated in the old authoritarian governments.
The extremists always warned the moderates not to trust the military, said Rachid al-Ghannouchi, founder and chairman of Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “their predictions were true.”
But Mr. Ghannouchi said the solution for the Islamist movement was not to fight back with weapons, but to further embrace pluralism, tolerance and compromise. “The cure for a failed democracy is more democracy,” he said, because “dictatorship disguised in religion is the worst kind of dictatorship.”
Ennahda itself was pressured into giving up control of Tunisia’s transitional government after a backlash against its failure to combat jihadist violence, including the assassination of two political opponents. But it still considers itself a rare Islamist success story, and it is expected to retain leadership of Parliament after elections this fall — in part, it believes, because it was willing to share power in the interim.
When Islamists from around the region gathered last fall at the Middle East Studies Center in Amman, Jordan, to assess lessons learned, the main conclusion was that “Islamists must now develop an idea of national partnership with the other forces,” Jawad el-Hamad, the center’s director, said in an interview.
To outsiders, that debate may now seem remote to the point of irrelevance, with the movement in a crisis as deep as any since an Egyptian schoolteacher established the first Muslim Brotherhood cell in the town of Ismailia 86 years ago.
The group became the wellspring of Islamist political movements around the world, spawning chapters in every Arab state. It also produced a steady stream of militants who lost patience with the Brotherhood’s gradualist approach and took up arms to advance an Islamist vision. The most famous of them is Ayman al-Zawahri of Al Qaeda.
When Mr. Morsi won Egypt’s first fair presidential election, many in the Islamist movement and even some of its critics argued that the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic victory had made Al Qaeda obsolete.
Then, on July 3, 2013, Egypt’s military-installed government jailed Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood’s parliamentary leaders. It shattered the group’s hierarchy, imprisoned more than 16,000 of its supporters and killed more than a thousand others at street protests.
Now, a renegade Libyan general is trying to use Egypt as a model for an anti-Islamist coup of his own — though without the power of the state behind him. Rushing to back the Egyptian military’s takeover, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and pressed other Arab states to do the same.
In Syria, Mr. Assad has defied predictions of his imminent overthrow, in part because extremists among the rebels have fought with moderates for power and spoils. The militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, cast out by Al Qaeda as too extreme, now dominate much of rebel-held Syria, moving back and forth across the border with Iraq.
Even Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, once a model for Islamists across the region, looks diminished by his own authoritarian turn, having cracked down on unarmed demonstrators and censored the Internet.
One camp of moderate Islamists maintains their defeats are temporary setbacks that will only make them stronger.
The struggles will “increase the Islamist movement’s strength, experience, coherence and understanding of the reality’s inner workings,” Roushdy Bouibry, a Moroccan Islamist, argued in an essay posted on his party’s web site.
Like the military crackdowns on Islamists in Egypt in the 1950s, in Turkey in the 1980s and in Algeria in the 1990s, these Islamists say, the “counterrevolution” of 2013 has merely illuminated the forces arrayed against them: the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies, Western powers, and the entrenched elites and bureaucrats that Islamists call the “deep state.”
Some exiled leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt tell their members that the repression was sent by God to test them, said Islam Lotfy, a former Muslim Brotherhood youth leader who was forced to flee the country. “They give the people spiritual painkillers,” Mr. Lotfy said in a phone interview from Doha, Qatar, one of the foreign capitals where he and fellow leaders have taken refuge.
But a second camp of Islamists, including many of the Brotherhood’s younger members, are searching for answers about what their leaders did wrong, and what they might do differently. “They refuse to return to what their elders faced for another 50 or 60 years,” Mr. Lotfy said.
If another chance at power emerges, these Islamists are asking, should the Brotherhood abandon its traditional gradualism and swiftly purge the police, the judiciary and other institutions? Should it seek to collaborate with non-Islamists like the liberal April 6 movement, which opposed the former strongman Hosni Mubarak, then Mr. Morsi and now the general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi?
Mohammed Sawan, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, echoed the Tunisians, arguing that his faction needed to do a better job cooperating with liberals. “The battle in the Arab region isn’t about Islam or identity at all,” he said. “It’s about the fundamental values of democracy, freedom and rights. It has nothing to do with Islamists versus non-Islamists.”
Many say hopefully that Tunisia is building the new model. “The Tunisians proved you can make compromises without losing your existence,” said Emad Shahin, an Egyptian political scientist close to many Islamists, who spoke by telephone from Washington because he, too, had been forced to flee Egypt.
Hichem Laarayedh, a leader of Ennahda’s youth wing, said he recently met in Istanbul with a group of young Egyptian Islamists in exile. “Did you see liberals speaking against Sisi when he was slaughtering us in Rabaa?” he said they asked, referring to the broad non-Islamist support for Mr. Sisi’s deadly crackdown on an Islamist sit-in against the military takeover. “How do you want us to trust them?”
Mr. Laarayedh said he told the Egyptians that some liberals had learned their lesson, noting that Mr. Sisi’s government had now outlawed the April 6 movement as well. “Didn’t April 6 turn against Sisi once they realized?” Mr. Laarayedh said he told them. “O.K., they made mistakes, but you also made mistakes. It is done now.”
Copyright 2014 The New York Times
Featured Image: Supporters of Egypt’s ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, during a military trial in March. In 2012, Mr. Morsi won Egypt’s first fair presidential election. Credit Heba Khamis/Associated Press
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