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. 

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi hold a giant poster of Morsi as they walk with their families in the sit-in area of Rab'a al- Adawiya Square, where they are camping, on the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday after the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, in Cairo Thursday.

After historic electoral victories less than two years ago, the political demise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and increasing troubles of Tunisia’s Islamists raises the question: Was their first shot at governance doomed to fail by immense challenges and vindictive opponents, or did their own missteps help 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.

Islamist parties swept into power at a moment of tremendous social, economic, and political upheaval. They had no experience in governance, let alone amid that much turmoil. While they received a plurality of votes, they faced formidable political opposition.

“Islamists were always going to have difficulty governing, but not because they’re Islamist,” says Henry Smith, a North Africa analyst from the British risk assessment firm Control Risks. “Any political party would have faced the same structural and institutional problems.”

Yet even accounting for the magnitude of the challenges before them, their inexperience, and the opposition they faced, many say that both the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and Ennahda in Tunisia made key strategic mistakes that weakened their hand – and, in the case of Egypt, led to their fall from power.

Now, as the Brotherhood seeks to reinstate President Mohammed Morsi after the military ousted him on July 3, how Egypt responds is likely to have implications not only for its fledgling democracy but also abroad – especially in Tunisia, where Ennahda is facing a re-energized opposition.

“The fall of the Brotherhood can be a turning point on the trajectory of political Islam in the region,” says Khalil al-Anani, a Durham University scholar of Islamist movements who has been in Cairo this summer. “It’s 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 … the consequences will be hard for Egypt, the region, and for the world itself.”

Islamists' rise to power

After decades of persecution and marginalization, Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia finally ascended to power via the ballot box in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

Both the Muslim Brotherhood’s 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 Egypt’s parliamentary election, while Ennahda scored 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 military’s deposing of Morsi, were driven in part by perceptions that the Brotherhood was trying to concentrate power in its own hands, breaking 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 party’s 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. 

Emboldened by the Brotherhood’s ouster in Egypt, Tunisia’s broadly secularist opposition parties are trying to drive Ennahda from power with persistent street demonstrations and political maneuvering. The dispute has stayed peaceful so far, but could set back Tunisia’s 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 and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia also frightened off tourists and foreign investors, which were critical to both economies. And despite the unity of the popular uprisings, both populations quickly became polarized 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 apparatus does not support that vision, says Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad. “You put a Formula 1 driver into a car with four flat tires, with no engine, no tank, and no steering wheel, it’s still not going to drive.”

Yet both governments have also made avoidable mistakes, analysts say.

Due to a combination of timidity and inexperience, Tunisia’s new leaders missed opportunities to make 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.  Instead, 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.

“It’s normal that a government of inexperienced people needs time to find its way and develop ideas,” says Mr. Kolster. “But Tunisia needs to speed up that process. Unfortunately, things haven’t moved.”

Opposition parties also complain that Ennahda and the FJP packed appointed positions with party stalwarts who lacked skills to govern – in some cases due in part to having been jailed for years by regimes who saw them as a threat.

“Islamist-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,” 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, it was predisposed to another trait that became a significant handicap: a lack of transparency that had been crucial in the movement’s underground days but proved hugely detrimental for a ruling party. 

According to a recent Gallup poll, public support for the Brotherhood’s FJP fell from a high of 67 percent shortly after parliamentary elections to 19 percent just before Morsi’s ouster.

“They couldn’t overcome this ideology of having to keep everything secret and work underground,” says Ahmed Hosny of Gemaa Islamiyya, a former Islamist militant movement that renounced violence years ago in order to join politics. “This was a big barrier, it created a big gap between them and the people.” 

A prime example of this was when Morsi unilaterally amended the constitutional declaration that was supposed to govern the transitional period and put himself – albeit temporarily – above judicial review. Morsi’s 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.

“If this [new] constitutional declaration had been displayed as a revolutionary act by the president … he wouldn’t have appeared as a dictator to the people,” says Mr. Hosny. “But this wasn’t the case, he just surprised the people.”

Dr. Anani of Durham University acknowledges that the Brotherhood lacked the skills to deal with a very complicated country in transition. “But 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,” he says, referring to the entrenched elements left over from Mubarak’s regime, also referred to as felool. “In the beginning they [the Brotherhood] tried to contain and accommodate the deep state.”

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. “Let’s make peace with them, let’s bring them to our side – this is the training of religious people … proselytization.” 

The media, some of which is state-run, also undermined the Brotherhood.

“[Morsi] left many of these counterrevolutionary, felool elements loose – in the media, in the state apparatus, and in society,” adds Dr. Shahin. “If he repressed 10 percent of what [military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah] Sisi is doing now, he would still be in power.”

The fact that the military retained key ministers from Morsi’s 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.

“To put it simply, instead of reforming the state, which is a very corrupt state, [the Brotherhood] tried to ride it,” says Anani. “It seemed to me that they were riding a tiger and they couldn’t control it and it seems to me that this tiger turned and ate them at the end.”

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, Mubarak’s last prime minister.

“You should realize that you are not in front of enemies,” says Mr. Bakkar. “You have a chance to contain deep state by using other liberal and revolutionary powers who actually voted for you against Shafiq.”

Ennahda facing emboldened opposition

Critics have coined the term “ballotocracy” to describe the Brotherhood’s perceived style of democracy, by which even the slimmest majority of votes bestows the right to impose ideology 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, the Brotherhood’s downfall has inspired Ennahda’s opponents to renew 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 country’s largest trade union, want the government dissolved. Some parties have said they want the constituent assembly dismantled, too. Meanwhile, 59 members of the 217-seat assembly are boycotting it to support opposition demands, according to Al Bawsala, an NGO that monitors the assembly.

Ennahda has called the antigovernment campaign an assault on democratic legitimacy. The party says it’s open to negotiating a national-unity cabinet but insists the assembly remain in place to finish the constitution.

On Tuesday 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 Ennahda’s religious leanings. But the underlying message was one of exhaustion.

“We’ve heard the government tell us ‘We will improve things’ … and then nothing,” says a protestor named Wajdi Chebbi, a young woodworker trying to provide for his ailing father and four younger siblings.

“Leaving religion aside, I just want a government that satisfies the people’s demands,” he says. “What was the revolution for? For work, for dignity, for rights.”

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