Tunisia Tests Arab Democratic Gains
Column by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz
The Tunisian Republic, where the “Arab Spring” began at the end of last year, has now passed the first test of democracy in the region undergoing upheaval since then. On Sunday, October 23, the country held free elections for its new constituent assembly.
But there was an ambiguous aspect to the success of the balloting process. A plurality of 41 percent was received by Ennahda (Renaissance), the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), delivering 90 of 217 assembly seats to the Islamist party. Ennahda has proposed its secretary general, Hamadi Jebali, as the country’s new prime minister, and has commenced negotiations for a coalition with the secularist Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the leftist Ettakatol party, according to BBC News.
Ennahda and its top leader, Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, have presented a version of MB ideology mentored by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials as the AKP). Among other links with the AKP environment, several books by Ghannouchi have been published in Turkish. In addition, Ghannouchi’s views have, for some years, been promoted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), a U.S.-based think tank known for its outreach to radical Islamist regimes and groups in Iran, Sudan, and in the West.
Ghannouchi and Ennahda have declared that, as in Turkey, where the AKP and Erdogan have won three national elections since 2002, Ennahda promises Islamic policies while respecting the secular basis of the Tunisian state. But also as in Turkey, such pledges may cover intentions by Ennahda as a party not so thoroughly committed to reliably equable governance as one might hope. The Turkish AKP includes numerous activist cadres from the ultra-radical Milli Gorus or National Vision movement of Necmettin Erbakan, which is distinguished by flamboyant Jew-baiting and other conspiratorialist views. Erdogan has conducted a long and alarming judicial offensive against alleged opponents of the AKP inside the military and media (the “Ergenekon conspiracy”).
The AKP administration has threatened naval action in the Mediterranean to assist the Hamas regime in Gaza. Erdogan’s government has pursued an expansion of Turkish Islamist influence beyond his country’s borders, westward into the large Turkish diaspora in Germany and the Netherlands, as well as in the former Ottoman provinces in the Balkans. Similar AKP initiatives are visible eastward in the Turkic-speaking ex-Soviet nations of Central Asia, and southward in the Arab countries, including Syria (where the AKP government has taken its distance from the bloody dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad). In North Africa, aside from its relationship with Ennahda, the Erdogan government was quick to inject itself into the recent civil conflict in Libya.
AKP is the party on which Tunisia’s Ennahda has modeled itself, although the latter cannot hope for such an ambitious field of foreign operations as the AKP has assumed. But Ennahda possesses an asset that AKP lacks. That is, the secular state within which the Turkish neo-fundamentalist party operates remains largely intact. The Turkish army, formerly the protector of the state from religious penetration, has been reduced in its power yet still constitutes a significant factor. But the Tunisian secularist state of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali was overthrown, and the constituent assembly to which the Ennahda deputies were elected is responsible for writing a new constitution. By contrast, the Turkish AKP has managed to amend the national constitution, but has not proposed a completely new political foundation for the state.
In addition, even if it cannot play the role in transnational politics undertaken by the Turkish AKP, Ennahda and Ghannouchi’s notable success at the ballot box will doubtless have an important impact in the Arab countries. At the end of November, Egypt will begin a series of parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the country on the Nile, is recognized as its best-organized political and social force, and has created a political front for the vote, titled the Freedom and Justice Party. Candidate registrations for the Egyptian elections were closed on October 24, with Islamist parties claiming a majority of those accepted to run for 498 seats. According to the news portal bikyamasr.com, 6,700 candidates were registered, representing 47 political parties.
The Egyptian MB has taken cues from the Turkish AKP and the Tunisian Ennahda in offering a new image of itself as an epitome of moderation. The Freedom and Justice Party has said it will contest no more than half of the seats to be awarded in the voting, and has formed an alliance with the New Wafd Party, the heir to a liberal nationalist party, the Wafd or “Delegation” created in the 1920s. The original Wafd was banned after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, from which the pan-Arab revolutionary platform of Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged. The Egyptian MB resembles the Turkish AKP in its broad support among the aspiring middle class, and the MB’s alignment with the New Wafd Party underscores this aspect of its profile, although Turkey is, at least for now, economically better-off than Egypt. The MB’s Freedom and Justice Party and the New Wafd Party have combined under the rubric of a “Democratic Alliance.”
The Egyptian MB possesses, on its own, a large enough constituency to achieve its electoral goals, so that it needs no particular help from either the AKP or Ennahda. But the reaction of the international community to the success of the Tunisian Ennahda may well affect the psychological state of the MB and its partisans in the Egyptian elections.
That is, if elections are held in Egypt. Unlike the Turkish army, which has been curbed by the AKP, and the Tunisian state apparatus, which was deposed, the Egyptian armed forces were largely unaffected by the events of the “Arab Spring,” and could intervene to reinforce the military rule under which Egypt has been governed since 1952. Further, the Tunisian outcome is liable to be irrelevant in responding to one of the most disturbing aspects of the Egyptian chapter in the “Arab Spring:” the emergence of an ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi party, Nour (“Light”) competing with the Egyptian MB in radicalism. Nour has joined two other radical Islamist groups, in an electoral list titled the “Islamist Alliance.” The Wahhabis, inspired by the Saudi ultra-fundamentalist, exclusivist, and violent sect, are often flattered by the label of “Salafis,” because of their purported emulation of the “aslaf,” the Islamic forerunners, made up of the companions and successors of Muhammad.
On October 27, Matt Bradley of The Wall Street Journal reported at length on a feature of the Egyptian context different from the situations of Turkey and Tunisia. Egyptian secularists have “discovered” the very large presence of spiritual Sufi Islam in Egyptian life, and are assessing whether mobilization of Egyptian Sufis may produce an effective counterbalance to the MB and Wahhabis. Bradley notes that Egyptian Sufis claim 15 million adherents, which would outnumber the combined voters for the MB and the Wahhabis. Egypt is indeed one of the outstanding Muslim countries in its Sufi legacy and institutions, with, as Bradley points out, a substantial Sufi presence in rural Egypt, giving them credibility as challengers to the MB and Wahhabis.
Egyptian Sufis have come under physical attack from the resurgent Wahhabis, who condemn Sufi spiritual practices as heretical. Sufi mosques and shrines have been targeted for destruction by Wahhabis, who seek to prohibit milad, the celebration of the birthday of Muhammad, which they consider a dilution of Islamic monotheism and which some Wahhabis assail as an alleged imitation of the Christian worship of Jesus. Milad is, however, deeply engrained in the Egyptian collective sensibility and cannot be removed from it.
The Egyptian Tahrir (Liberation) Party was formed in February with the participation of a leading Sufi sheikh, Mohamed Alaa Abul Azayem of the Azeemia Sufi order, who called for resistance to the fundamentalists. It will present 80 candidates at the polls. A similar Democratic People’s Party has been established and has recruited thousands of Sufis. The latter party has reached out to the Egyptian Coptic Christian population, which has suffered atrocities from Wahhabi fanatics and army units following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, and the electoral list of the Democratic People’s Party will include a group of Copts.
Sufi politics may, however, be difficult to organize, as the WSJ’s Bradley pointed out in his reportage. Some Sufi movements, or tariqas, have cleaved to Islamist ideology, and while Sufis have a reputation for non-involvement in political activity, Sufis vary in their attitudes to the state. The Naqshbandi Sufi movement, for example, claims spiritual descent from the first of Muhammad’s four “righteous caliphs,” Abu Bakr, while other Sufis assert their origins in the example of Imam Ali, the fourth of the “righteous caliphs.” The Naqshbandis have historically sought to protect the Islamic state and a rigid standard of Islamic law from alleged dilution, by placing their sheikhs and adherents close to or in positions of political authority. The Turkish AKP has drawn support from semi-clandestine Sufi movements that survived under the secularist regime in that country, after the public suppression of the Sufi orders in the aftermath of the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate.
The ideological underpinnings of the AKP include followers of the Nurcu movement of Said Nursi (1877-1960), who began as a Naqshbandi Sufi, but gravitated to the jihadist Sufism of the Qadiri tariqa. A series of such Sufi-inspired figures has been prominent in the revival of Islamist politics in Turkey, culminating in the foundation of the AKP. A variant in this evolution is represented by the Turkish Islamist movement of Fethullah Gulen, whose network of schools, newspapers, and policy institutes has extended far beyond Turkey and the Turkish diaspora, into Western civil society, as well as Pakistan and other countries.
It is a matter of their physical survival for the Sufis of Egypt and other countries to defend themselves against militant fundamentalists, especially the acolytes of Wahhabism. Pakistan is already undergoing a crisis in which the Barelvi Muslims, who are Sunnis with a strong internal attachment to Qadiri and Naqshbandi Sufism, have abdicated their responsibility for defending their shrines and personal security against a brutal offensive by the Deobandis, Wahhabis, and others bent on wrecking their sacred sites and killing them. Indeed, the Pakistani Barelvis, who represent a majority of South Asian Muslims in the diaspora community of Britain, have shown that some Sufis cannot be expected to resist the onslaught of fundamentalist violence on their own. Similar examples are found in other Muslim communities.
The Turkish and Pakistani examples indicate that the Sufis, long neglected in Islamic life and treated as a manifestation of “folk Islam” by academic experts, may prove either complicit with Islamists or passive in the face of homicidal aggression against them. Such an outcome would represent a profound deviation from the path of love, mercy, and mutual respect between all human beings taught in Sufism. As a Muslim Sufi myself, I hope sincerely that the Egyptian Sufis can mobilize to defend their shrines, their communities, and the stability of their nation against both the “neo-fundamentalism” of the refurbished MB and the bloodthirsty schemes of the Wahhabis.
Tunisia’s election was a first test, but only the first. Events in Egypt will have a much greater impact in the Islamic lands and the world as a whole.
Columnist, Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, is Director of Center for Islamic Pluralism, Washington DC.