Islamism in North Africa: Past Legacies and Egypt's Opportunity

Posted in Broader Middle East | 06-May-04 | Source: International Crisis Group

New approach is required to address changes in behavior by religious, political activists

This is the overview of the first of a two-part ICG report titled "Islamism in North Africa: Legacies of History and Egypt's Opportunity." The full report is available at:


The International Crisis Group (ICG) is an independent, non-profit, multinational organization, with over 100 staff members on five continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

CAIRO/BRUSSELS: Islamism, terrorism, reform: the triangle formed by these three concepts and the complex and changeable realities to which they refer is at the center of political debate in and about North Africa today.

The role of Egyptian elements in the leadership of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization is well-known, if not necessarily well understood. The involvement of Maghrebis in terrorist networks in Europe - whether linked to Al-Qaeda or not - has recently been underlined by the suspected involvement of Moroccans in the March 11, 2004, attack in Madrid.

Egypt itself has endured years of terrorist violence; few if any countries have suffered as much from terrorism as Algeria has over the last 12 years; and the bombings in Casablanca on May 16, 2003, suggest that Morocco is not immune.

At the same time, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco have all been sites of important attempts at pluralist political reform. Morocco's political system has exhibited a measure of party-political pluralism since the early years of independence. Egypt experienced political pluralism before 1952; and under both Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak a degree of pluralism has been allowed at some periods, only to be stifled at others.

In Algeria, formal party pluralism was introduced in 1989 and has survived, although it has fallen far short of substantive democracy.

Yet debate over these issues has become bogged down in a welter of fixed but erroneous ideas. One is the notion that posits a simple chain of cause and effect: Absence of political reform generates Islamism, which in turn generates terrorism. This simplistic analysis ignores the considerable diversity within contemporary Islamic activism, the greater part of which has been consistently nonviolent.

It also overlooks the fact that the rise of Islamist movements in North Africa has not been predicated on the absence of reform, but has generally occurred in conjunction with ambitious government reform projects. The expansion of Islamic political activism in Egypt occurred in the context of President Sadat's audacious economic and political opening - infitah - in the 1970s; the spectacular rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria in 1989-1991 occurred in the context of the government's liberalization of the political system and its pursuit of radical economic reform.

The problem of reform, therefore, has not been its absence so much as the particular character of the reform projects that have been adopted by North African governments, the political alliances and maneuvers in which they have engaged in the process, and their complex, unforeseen and sometimes disastrous consequences.

The problem of Islamism has not been its doctrinal outlook so much as the difficulty the Egyptian, Algerian and Moroccan states have had in accommodating the more dynamic forms of nonviolent activism and, in particular, their inability to integrate a major Islamic movement into the formal political system.

Egypt has refused to legalize the Muslim Brotherhood. Algeria, having legalized the FIS and allowed it to contest and win two elections, then decided it could not cope with the consequences. Morocco has consistently refused to legalize the Justice and Charity movement led by Sheikh Abdesselam Yacine.

Whatever justifications have been advanced for these decisions, it is likely that a major element of the rationale has been the concern that their legalization threatened to destabilize the political system.

A new approach is required in both Western and North African discussions of political reform and the place and potential role of Islamist movements, not least because of the following changes in the outlook and behavior of Islamic political activists over the last decade.

Where in the past many Islamic movements tended to combine and confuse religious and political objectives, some movements now explicitly limit their objectives and activities to the religious sphere, while others define themselves as political movements.

Accommodating Islamic political movements within the formal political systems of North African states is still controversial; but these movements are not the source of the terrorism problem. One corollary is that the distinction between moderate and radical Islamic activism is of limited analytical value, and the tendency to identify religious activism with moderation and political activism with radicalism is misconceived. The violent forms of Islamic activism are the product of a radicalization of the most conservative trend in religious activism.

Though their objectives may be "political" in the broadest sense, they do not seek to win elections or argue for government policy change; their motivations remain essentially religious. Tendencies that dismiss, ignore or simply have no faith in political action are, when stirred up, most likely to resort to violence because they have no other option.

Islamic political movements in North Africa no longer condemn democracy as un-Islamic. In fact, they explicitly reject theocratic ideas and proclaim acceptance of democratic and pluralist principles.

Their opposition to regimes has accordingly changed, focusing on the demand for justice and the need to apply the constitution properly (or, at most, to revise it), rather than replace it wholesale.

At the same time, they no longer idealize the supra-national Islamic community, or umma, over the nation-state, but accept the latter both as legitimate and the main framework of their activity. While continuing to demand the application of Islamic law, or Sharia, they acknowledge the its need to take account of contemporary social realities, and, consequently, for interpretative reasoning, ijtihad, and deliberative processes to play their part in its elaboration.

It is becoming inappropriate to characterize these movements as fundamentalist, or even as wholly conservative. They defend conservative positions on certain questions, but a striking feature is their revival of the ideas of the Islamic modernism movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is important because the central features of the original Islamic modernist current were precisely its predominantly positive orientation to elements of Western scientific and political thought. The weakening of modernist nationalism in North Africa was a major factor in the eclipse of Islamic modernism and the rise of conservative and anti-Western Islamic activism. For the recent recovery of modernist ideas within Islamic political movements to bear fruit requires a broader recovery of the national idea in North African political life.

Most Islamic religious activism is nonviolent and no threat to the state, public order or individual human rights. But the problem of violence is nonetheless rooted in the outlook and impulses of certain, quite specific, Islamic religious movements. The two tendencies which matter in this context are the Salafiyya movement, which has become broadly identified with the Wahhabi tradition in Saudi Arabia, and the distinct current of activism inspired by the Egyptian Islamic thinker, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966).

The Salafiyya movement today is fundamentalist and very conservative. It is also disinclined to acknowledge or attach value to national identities, emphasizing instead the supra-national Islamic identity and community. For the mainstream of the movement, dominated by religious scholars - ulama - and so sometimes called the Salafiyya ilmiyya - the scholarly or scientific Salafiyya - the impulse to violence is rooted in its ambition to control individual behavior - occasionally taking the form of punitive action against individuals or groups regarded as "bad Muslims."

Recourse to violence as a primary strategy is the defining characteristic of a particular wing of the Salafiyya movement known as the Salafiyya jihadiyya, the fighting or warrior Salafiyya. It originated in the war against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan and took root across North Africa as Arab veterans of that conflict returned home.

Extremely conservative, if not reactionary, the Salafiyya jihadiyya typically attacks Western targets in defense of the Islamic world. In contrast, violent movements that have targeted North African states have mostly been oriented by the not-at-all traditional doctrines of Sayyid Qutb. The main violent movements in Egypt have all been Qutbist; while some in Algeria have described themselves as Salafi, they, too, have been heavily influenced by Qutb's ideas.

The main violent movements in Egypt - Tanzim al-Jihad (the Jihad Organization) and Al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) - have been defeated, though they have reacted in different ways. The Jamaa has engaged in ideological revision, and its leaders have effectively repudiated their earlier outlook. The Jihad Organization, on the other hand, has invested its energies in the international jihad spearheaded by Al-Qaeda, in which it is now fully incorporated.

This reorientation of Egyptian jihadi energies to the international plane means that the activists involved have abandoned the earlier Qutbist perspective of overthrowing the Egyptian state, but not totally and perhaps only temporarily.

These developments have important policy implications:

The adaptation of Islamic political movements to democratic principles and the national idea means that North African governments can no longer seriously invoke previous anti-democratic or anti-national ideologies as sufficient justification for continuing to refuse these movements' democratic rights. While opponents will naturally continue to harbor suspicion of their motives and sincerity, Islamic political movements should be judged by their behavior, not by the intentions their adversaries attribute to them.

Secular or other self-consciously modernist forces and organizations which have traditionally been extremely hostile to Islamist movements can no longer invoke the allegedly obscurantist, medieval or intolerant outlook of those movements as grounds for their own intolerant refusal to engage in serious political argument with them. The fact that Islamic political movements are displaying a new flexibility and open-mindedness means that it should be possible for all tendencies in North African politics to engage much-needed debate.

More generally, the debate over democratic reform in North Africa must now get over the stumbling block of political Islam and focus instead on the structural obstacles to democratic development within North African political systems, such as the absence of checks on executive power, the role of the military, the weakness of representative assemblies and the dependent nature of the judiciary.

This discussion should also focus critically on the extent to which the external parameters of policy making in North African states constrain democracy. The ways in which globalization has eroded national sovereignty has been a much greater constraint on democratic reform than is generally recognized. The economic policy prescriptions of Western governments and international financial institutions have tended to pre-empt and preclude domestic political debate over economic and social policy. This has encouraged domestic political controversy to focus on the far more septic issues of identity and legitimacy, and it is in part the politicization of these issues that explains the rise of radical Islamism in the region.

Western policymakers also need to recognize that other policy choices toward the Middle East and North Africa have contributed to the rise of anti-Western and terrorist trends of Islamist activism. They must face the fact that the Palestinian question has been a major stimulus for the emergence of violent tendencies.

Western policymakers also need to reconsider their attitude toward nationalism in North Africa. The conventional attitude has been hostile, for two main reasons: first, because nationalism has been identified with authoritarian rule and thus seen as an obstacle to democratization and, secondly, because it has been identified with economic policies and practices considered inimical to free trade. While there is some truth to both perceptions, Western views have overlooked other fundamental points: first, the historical role of nationalism in generally moderating Islamist ideas and activism; secondly, the need of North African regimes for nationalist legitimacy if they are to withstand, let alone domesticate, Islamist oppositions; thirdly, the need to sustain the national idea and national identities as the common ground on which religious and political pluralism can develop in a climate of tolerance.