Between Democratization and Authoritarian Resurgence: The Future of Political Islam in the Maghreb
Panel IV-21, sponsored byMerian Centre for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM), 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am
‘Political Islam’ denotes Islamist actors who act politically within a subjectively defined Islamic frame of reference, integrating themselves into structures based on the rule of law, and who renounce violence and avow an electoral understanding of democracy. This panel examines how shifting political and societal contexts in the Maghreb region continue to shape the strategies, guiding principles, and behaviour of prominent proponents of political Islam. Relatedly, it examines the prospects of these proponents of political Islam in reshaping the future of Maghrebi societies.
Before 2010, states in the Maghreb deployed different strategies for controlling political Islam in order to secure the power of ruling elites. Yet amidst the political openings following the "Arab Spring" protests, the relationship between movements of political Islam and regimes changed. For instance, in Tunisia, large-scale protests and regime change saw the emergence of an Ennahda-led government (2011-13), whilst in Morocco more limited protest openings resulted in the Islamist PJD becoming the largest party in government (2011-2021). More broadly, in the Maghreb Islamist movements became integral to the political mainstream. However, the subsequent re-instigation of neo-authoritarian politics, including the reimposition of regime control by 2013 in Morocco and the rise of Kais Saied in Tunisia since 2021, means that the legitimate participation of Islamist parties within nation-state structures is again under challenge, and societal orientations toward Islamist ideas, or their toleration of Maghrebi states, appears to be changing.
Consequently, this panel examines the relationship of a host of actors of political Islam in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya vis-à-vis local societies and shifting patterns of institutional openings and closing. In doing so, it asks: To what extent do proponents of political Islam still pursue a state-centred project? In light of renewed regime repression, to what extent and under what conditions are such state-centred approaches to reform even possible for these actors? What is their future relationship between operating and exerting influence as social movements on the one hand and as political parties on the other? More broadly, what challenges have the actors of political Islam faced from inside themselves and outside - for example, from their own fragmentation, from other political groups, shifting institutional and societal openings and constraints, or competing Salafi trends?
What future challenges does the most important actor of political Islam in Tunisia, Ennahda, face from inside and outside? Based on this question, this paper examines in two analytical sections how the monopolisation of power by Tunisian President Kais Saied affects Ennahda's forward-looking strategies and behaviour. It can already be observed that the state of emergency policy initiated with Said's seizure of power on 25 June 2021 has created the framework for existential uncertainties for the former political heavyweight in post-Arab Spring Tunisia.
Against this background, the paper first takes a look back at the path that Kais Saied has taken vis-à-vis Ennahda since 2021. Firstly, Saied's approach to the control and and the containement of political Islam at the expense of political power sharing in Tunisia is the focus of a document-based discourse analysis. It is shown that Saied's political break with Tunisia's previous political system goes hand in hand with the disempowerment of the party (elites) established since the so-called Arab Spring, whose most prominent representative has been Ennahda (Camau, 2023; Dihstelhoff, 2023; Gobe, 2022a/b). Secondly, with the help of content-analytical evaluations of interviews with representatives of the Nahda Party, the paper also focuses on the organisation’s own ideas for a way out of the current re-authoritarianisation in Tunisia. Ennahda’s central minimum requirement in this context seems to be a formal return to legitimate participation in rule-of-law structures (cf. Brésillion, 2021; Mersch, 2021; Yerkes, 2022). But what specific solutions does Ennahda offer for the contemporary problems of Tunisia's ongoing multiple state crisis? How likely is it that Ennahda will still pursue a state-centred approach to reform in the future, despite regime repression? Will the organisation be able to renew itself and resume the role it has played since 2011? Does it still have something to offer Tunisians in one form or another?
This paper broadly examines the practices and discourses with Algeria’s Islamist Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP) after the Algerian Civil War (1992-2002), in order to elucidate how political Islam contends with authoritarian domination beyond formal electoral contestation or observable acts of coordinated rebellion.
Using ethnographic methods including observation of party meetings, informal conversations with members spanning multiple years, and semi-structured interviews, supplemented by text analysis of primary sources, media sources, and the movement’s social media discourse, the investigation exposes more everyday forms of resistance, as well as the meaning-making processes that guide them. More specifically, this paper shows that instead of confronting the state and its institutions outright, the MSP members have turned to more subtle contentious acts, including appropriating the language and symbolism on which the state’s legitimacy historically relied.
In particular, Algeria’s national scouting organization, the Algerian Muslim Scouts (SMA), is a site of these ongoing contests, as it continues to occupy a special place in the Algerian imagination for its religious-ideological, military, and educational-formational role in Algeria’s War of Independence—indeed as “soldiers of the Algerian future.” (Mahfoud Kaddache, 2003: 73) It is widely hailed as an heir of the revolution and an icon of Algerian authenticity. In addition to rendering it an iconic nationalist object, the SMA’s religious-military activities rendered it a space through which Algerianness was state-brokered and -monopolized. Mobilizing and establishing affinity with the historic SMA—in most cases and localities, quite effectively—at the expense of the state allowed the MSP to trespass on, resist, and appropriate components of the state's symbolic power and legitimacy, without actively confronting the state’s coercive power.
Through this investigation, this paper seeks to rethink “what counts as relevant” (James Scott, 1985: xv) in the study of revolution and resistance, and responds to the extant focus in Islamist studies and social movements literature on upheaval, rebellion, and antisystem repertoires of contention—all of which have become culturally unavailable to Islamist movements (a) after the civil war, wherein the state aggressively reconsolidated power through repression and anti-Islamist propaganda, and (b) amidst the shifting political-cultural landscape in the wake of the Algerian Hirak movement.
After its revolution in 2010/2011, Tunisia went through a shift concerning the relationship between politics and religion. During Ben Ali era (1987-2011), Salafist groups as well as Islamist Ennahda party had been excluded from the political sphere. The new political context was characterized by a high degree of openness: Ennahda came into power via democratic elections and became a key protagonist of Tunisia’s democratization. While the largest Islamist party was included into Tunisia’s political system, Salafi jihadist preachers who were released from prison openly called for a violent struggle against the existing order. The first five years after the uprisings were thus marked by violent radicalization.
While taking opposing trajectories in post-revolutionary Tunisia into account, one could argue that both Ennahda and Salafi jihadist actors served the same demand on the Tunisian (discourse) market: They tried to make offers for recasting the relationship between Islam and politics and to address those Tunisians that wished for a stronger role of religion in public life. This paper analyzes the offers made by Ennahda and Salafi jihadists. We scrutinize their narratives individually, compare them to each other and interrogate the relationship they construct toward the respective other. Drawing on the rich literature on social movement theory, mobilization and radicalization, the paper compares key elements of communicative strategies of Ennahda and Salafi jihadist actors between 2011 and 2022. We use frame and discourse analysis to analyze “natural” data as produced and disseminated online by both actors (statements, documents, audio, video and textual material). We contextualize our findings in Tunisia’s dynamic political context in the post-revolutionary years.