Analyses of Islamists in Northwest Arica—from Mauritania to Libya—follow a common pattern of distinguishing militants among them from non-militants. In particular, the ability of state regimes to draw such a distinction allows for political engagement between regimes and Islamists, with the latter typically emerging from the opposition to regimes and traditional ruling elites. This study focuses on non-militant Islamists.
Islamists engaging (or in some cases, being allowed to engage) in electoral processes have been waffling back and forth between participation and abstention. The level and nature of engagement depend on several factors, primarily the regime’s willingness to accommodate Islamists through elections and integrate them within the state’s governing bodies. And the farther Islamists are from militancy, the more the regime is willing to do so. However, this relationship has been a complex one, determined by pragmatism on both sides, by national and regional political and economic factors, and by the Islamists’ end goals. The fact that they have never striven to fundamentally change economic or political structures has allowed for their accommodation without a real threat to the regimes, whose interests are tied to and upheld by the same structures.
Neither the Islamists’ rhetoric nor their actions have yet lived up to the economic and political realities of Northwest African states, and the Arabic speaking world in general. In the big picture, the Islamists’ involvement in politics has certainly enriched general discourses on democracy in the region, and perhaps enhanced some related procedures, but it has not resulted in tangible changes in the daily realities of those they represent or govern. The silver lining is that lately, voters have been able to see through the religious rhetoric and the maneuvers of alliance between the regimes and Islamist parties and to develop a more sophisticated approach to elections. One hopes a more mature political culture will ensue, one that is devoid of the allure of rhetoric and tied to performance metrics.
The Islamists’ involvement in politics has certainly enriched general discourses on democracy in the region, and perhaps enhanced some related procedures, but it has not resulted in tangible changes in the daily realities of those they represent or govern.
With the exception of Libya, all other states in Northwest Africa were part of the French Empire and emerged with post-independence regimes espousing an anti-colonial legacy. They all inherited racial, ethnic, and regional divisions institutionalized by the colonial powers and a non-inclusive political system designed to manipulate those divisions. Each has had its own course of history with the opposition and, in this case, with the Islamists who had emerged as popular contenders to the ruling establishment since the 1980s, but more so since the 1990s. In general, Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria have more in common in that regard than do Tunisia and Libya. The former have witnessed regime policies of accommodation and co-optation whereby Islamists have participated in elections and formed governments. The latter, under the rule of Zine El-Abidine ben Ali and Muammar al-Qadhafi, respectively, opted for exclusion and persecution and did not allow for any power sharing, even in the form of co-optation. It was only after the uprisings that toppled both of these leaders that Islamists entered the political scene as a force with considerable weight on the ground, and not from exile. However, Tunisia’s robust civil society, more established and mature political institutions, reined-in military, and a more integrated geography led to a different outcome from that of Libya after 2011. While Libya’s Islamists have proven incapable of constructing a viable political structure post-Qadhafi as other political entities in the country, Tunisia’s Islamists have had a very animated and rich experience in the era after Ben Ali.
Regime vs. Islamism: Accommodation as Co-optation
One feature defining the politics of Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria vis-à-vis the Islamists has been the relative success of the policies of accommodation adopted by the regimes. It is critical here to understand accommodation of Islamists within the state’s political framework as a form of co-optation meant to dilute opposition, delay serious reform, and defuse political tensions. It is also an indication of the significant political weight of those Islamists who are willing to share power via elections, in contrast to those using military tactics to oppose the regimes. There are several factors that allow for this accommodation, including confronting the threat of jihadist groups (as in Mauritania), thwarting a popular uprising (Morocco), and preventing further radicalization of Islamists (Algeria). There is also a lesson learned regionally from the Algerian civil war of the 1990s that remains a constant reminder of where state violence against Islamists could lead. But equally important has been the realization from the brutality of that war that the binary politics of Islamism vs. secularism and Islamism vs. the nation-state—which has characterized the relationship between Islamists and regimes—is never a zero-sum game.
It is critical to understand accommodation of Islamists within the state’s political framework as a form of co-optation meant to dilute opposition, delay serious reform, and defuse political tensions.
But accommodation as co-optation has been detrimental to the credibility of Islamists as a meaningful opposition. While accommodation of Islamists can lead to more political stability, it has also led to the longevity of the regimes and to authoritarian resilience. Such accommodation has also depended on the state’s capacity and means to co-opt Islamists; to be sure, in the absence of effective means, political stability is at risk. That was the case with Algeria in the 1990s, when the regime faced plunging oil prices and was unable to co-opt the opposition by sharing state rent and resources; it was thus unable to broker politics effectively, which contributed to prolonging the civil war. And because the Islamists’ agenda had no alternative to the rentier economic structure, they adapted to this system, being unable or unwilling to challenge it.
Islamists and Elections
The 2011 upheavals of the Arab Spring offered an opening to a new phase for Islamist politics in the region, and more specifically in Tunisia and Morocco. The uprisings provided Islamists with a golden opportunity to assert their influence and popularity through elections—as flawed as they might have been in the case of Morocco at the time—and to advance themselves as serious contenders for power. While the popular uprisings since 2011 have determined much of the regimes’ posture toward Islamists, they have also changed the relationship between the Islamists and the general population. The following is a brief assessment of Islamist involvement in the politics of Northwest African states.
The uprisings provided Islamists with a golden opportunity to assert their influence and popularity through elections and to advance themselves as serious contenders for power.
Morocco. In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) won the election in 2011 and formed a government, then increased its share of the vote in 2016 and reached 125 seats. Its failure to introduce meaningful economic reforms and address structural economic problems, coupled with its tight relationship with the makhzen (the palace), led to the PJD’s defeat in the 2021 election, reducing the party’s seats to 12.
Tunisia. Tunisia’s Ennahda, sweeping the elections in 2011 and initiating the possibility of a functioning Islamic democracy, won the premiership in 2013, and secured the biggest parliamentary bloc—until President Kais Saied suspended parliament in July 2021. Undermined by a crippling economic situation, continuing civil unrest, and the rise of populism, Ennahda won 52 seats in 2019. It is noteworthy that Tunisia’s Islamists have shown a high degree of political maturity, as they are focused on national unity and have implemented radical changes in their ideology. Indeed, the party officially abandoned its religious identity and branded itself as a mere political entity—which, naturally, has been at the expense of fragmentation within the party.
Algeria. The civil wars in Libya and Syria that followed the uprisings reminded Algerians of their own civil strife in the 1990s and pushed them to opt for maintaining the status quo. Algerian Islamists who were willing to work with the regime had regrouped mostly under the banner of the Movement for Society of Peace (MSP) following the abolition of the Islamic Salvation Front; they ran in all elections and remained in accord with the state regime. It was only in 2019, with the popular Hirak uprising, that there was a serious challenge to the regime in that decade. On June 12, 2021, Algeria held its first legislative elections, two years after the start of the Hirak movement. Lacking faith in the system, less than a third of eligible voters cast ballots in what was called a “pseudo election.” Algeria’s main Islamist party, the MSP, won 64 seats only; they, too, had failed to address what was at the core of voters’ grievances.
Mauritania. After a crackdown on Mauritania’s Islamists in the 1990s and until the military coup of 2005, Islamists formed the National Rally for Reform and Development, known by its Arabic acronym, Tawassul. They followed a line of cooperation with the regime and gained more clout as intermediaries between the state and militants affiliated with al-Qaeda, which was active in the Sahara and the Sahel and threatened political stability in Mauritania. They were responsible for a “theological housecleaning.” Members of Tawassul were also able to absorb some of the racial tensions in the country along the dividing lines of the Bidan (the White Moors) and Haratin (the freed Black slaves); they were successful by appealing to the Haratin. Of all Islamists in Northwest Africa, they have so far kept their gains.
Libya. The Islamists of Libya experimented with national politics after the fall of Qadhafi and with the elections in 2012. The Justice and Construction Party (JCP) played a significant role in Libya’s first elected government. But the rise of various militias, the absence of a proper governance structure, internal disputes within the JCP, and the threat of militant Islamists have led to the JCP’s marginalization and inability to play a significant role. It has become part of the political bickering that continues to paralyze Libya and undermine any return to a normal state of affairs. The latest scheduled elections were canceled when Libya’s election commission dissolved polling committees on December 22, 2021, indefinitely postponing the vote. The fate of Islamists in Libya is as unknown as the fate of the country.
The Economic Impasse and the Challenge to Islamism
There is no doubt that Islamists have shown much malleability in negotiating their place in, and share of, the governance system. Islamists in Northwest Africa, like everywhere else, have proven that they can work with the regimes and within the confines of the state and its institutions. It has not been a smooth alliance and Islamists are not always compliant in such an arrangement. But it has worked well for their political survival and economic interests. Despite certain oppositional stands, they generally uphold the system and benefit from it, thus legitimizing and prolonging it rather than challenging—let alone changing—it. Meanwhile, state regimes have learned that exclusionary policies targeting Islamists are counterproductive; to that end, they have preferred co-optation and measured alliances.
State regimes have learned that exclusionary policies targeting Islamists are counterproductive; to that end, they have preferred co-optation and measured alliances.
Such alliances have come at the expense of the Islamists’ credibility and the whole project of “Islam is the solution.” This slogan has faded from election platforms as Islamists and voters understand that it is more of a rhetorical tool to garner votes than an actual plan that addresses the bitter realities of the region. Voters have been dissatisfied with the Islamists’ performance as Islamists learn the hard way that shared power comes with shared responsibilities toward citizens. Tunisia’s Ennahda, for example, admits that the freedom and democracy that it has championed are not enough to satisfy voters. Even those are threatened by the lack of an economic revolution that addresses grievances driven by unemployment, poverty, a widening gap between the rich and the poor and between the urban and rural areas, blocked social mobility, inflation, drought, desertification, environmental degradation, and a crumbling public education system. In the case of Mauritania, deep racial tensions add to the economic malaise.
Unless Islamists rise to the challenge and address the core of the matter, they will eventually become irrelevant. Doing so alone and/or in partnership with the regimes is impossible. But before they look for new partners, Islamists in Northwest Africa must acknowledge priorities and concede on identity politics. They have not been as quick in transforming their agenda in step with the pace of economic deterioration. They might have missed the train already—or, at least, that is what the latest voting patterns indicate.
The views expressed in this paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Doha Institute or Arab Center Washington DC or its Board of Directors.