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Tuesday, 10 March 2015 01:08

#TeaTalk Interview with Mustapha Tlili: The Arab Spring and the fall of political Islam

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Maria Dubovikova: Tunisia has become the first democracy in the Middle East, first of all due to the fact that its society is far more liberalized than any other country of the Middle East. Tunisia has once more confirmed that policy of “putting the cart before the horse” is useless, that obtrusion of democratic institutions doesn’t lead to the establishment of liberal democracy, and that to establish one, the society itself should be liberalized, which will automatically lead to the establishment of democratic rule. So can we say that Tunisian success becomes possible thanks to its historically strong ties with France? And in this case why didn’t the Arab Spring touch Morocco, which also has strong ties with France and a society that is more liberalized compared to the other countries of the MENA? Or, if Tunisia was and is the most liberalized country of the Middle East, why did the Islamists win the first elections after the fall of Ben Ali?

 

Mustapha Tlili: Tunisia and Morocco are different in many ways. First, they are different in terms of their size and population. On the one hand, you have about 30 million people in Morocco and approximately 10-11 million in Tunisia. Second, Tunisia is far more urbanized – you could even say far more advanced – than Morocco. Morocco remains a more rural country. Tunisia is up to 85% urban. That’s a big difference. If you look at the map of Tunisia, you’ll see that the concentration of the population is along the coast. And that concentration of the population along the coast orients its outlook towards the north, rather then towards the east or the west. When Tunisians think about their daily lives, of how to improve them, they don’t think east or west. They think north because Sardinia (Italy) is 20 minutes away by plane; Rome is 40 minutes. You can take a morning flight, do whatever you have to do in Rome, and come back in the afternoon. Paris is practically the same distance. The flight takes less then two hours. You can go there in the morning and come back in the afternoon. The whole length of Southern France and Southern Italy is so close – that has a huge impact. Also, the middle class in Tunisia is much stronger than the middle class in Morocco. Tunisia is more successful in terms of GDP, of buying power, of the level of comfort of middle class living. They invest in lasting things – houses and other property – connected with stability. If you are raised with these things, you are not going to burn down your own things or your brother’s – you are rising up because you want to change the structure. In Morocco, the population cannot even rise up because of the overwhelming power of the Monarchy and the tools of oppression the Monarchy has at its disposal. In Tunisia, when the break-down happened, it was a real revolution intended to stop the corrupt regime and the power it exercised through the police. The revolution was also connected with middle class ideology and demographics – hundreds of thousands of youth that were very well educated, with university diplomas, but jobless. If you look at the slogans of the revolution, they are dignity, employment, and freedom of expression. You’ll find them to be almost the same slogans of the Prague Spring – they were calling for freedom, for freedom of expression, for the end of dictatorship, and so on and so forth. In Morocco you didn’t have this. You had only a few demonstrations…

 

MD:  Shut down by the government.

 

MT:  Yes. These are differences that are very important and which we have to keep in mind. Also, the Islamists got into the picture later – they were not initially part of the revolution. The dictator fled the country on January 14, 2011. The following day «Project Syndicate» asked me to write a piece on the event. It appeared on January 20. By that time, most of the analysts expected the Islamists to come. But the Islamists were nowhere to be found. I started my piece this way. And this is a fact. Twenty years after The New York Times featured the fall of Bourguiba, the front-page article announced the flight of Ben Ali with a big picture. Look up that photo: it was a photo of a huge demonstration on January 14, the day Ben Ali fled the country. There is a sea of men and women. I looked at the photo trying to find a single woman with a headscarf or hijab, trying to find a single man with a beard. I started my column precisely with this observation. There is no way you can look at this image and find the Islamists present. If you look at the slogans that prevailed during these demonstrations, there was not a single call for the application of sharia. The protesters demands were – without exception – the typical demands of a middle class country for more freedoms. What happened, as history will show, is that Islamists were pushed by some powers to take advantage of the situation and to start making their presence known. And that is what happened in Tunisia. Suddenly, some of them who had been in exile, like Ghanushi, began showing their heads. And they had a lot of money. They were inundating the country with money to show their power. For instance, they bought a huge modern building to serve as their headquarters. Then they stated spreading their network across the country through local offices they established all over the place. They also started doing charity work in the country knowing very well there would be elections in few months. Spending huge amounts of money – and there are many indications that this money came from Qatar – the Islamists started preparing for elections. And given the sympathy that the Islamists had gained when they were in prison and in exile, and given the fact that secular forces (leftists, liberals, etc.) were not united and were fighting each other for power, the results of the elections were disastrous. The Islamists won over 80% of the vote. It had been agreed before the elections that the winning force would form the government. Despite their victory, the fact is, the Islamists were late to the party. The same is true for Egypt. If you go back to the history of that period (which already seems far away), the Islamists were not even thinking about presenting candidates for election. They said they were not thinking of running for the presidency. But then they changed their mind.

 

MD: Yes, as they could not imagine themselves coming into power after the years of oppression!

 

MT: Yes! And it should be said that when the Islamists came to power in Tunisia, instead of focusing on the demands of the revolution (jobs, dignity, freedom), they thought they had a mandate to change the identity of the country…. to impose sharia, to roll back the rights of women, to Islamize the country as if the country was not Muslim enough. And when Tunisians realized these objectives, they said no.

 

MD: I read, if I’m not mistaken, an article on the basis of your interview, given in February of this year to the Tunisian website. There you have said that there is an end of political Islam in Tunisia.

 

MT: Not only in Tunisia, but all over the Middle East.

 

MD: But what about ISIS? It’s not just Islamism, it’s extremism, and what’s more, it is an Islamic political extremism. I think it’s a new phenomenon we’ve never faced before in modern history. Are you taking into account the Salafists in Egypt who are much more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood and still remain popular enough and have their electorate, or taking into account that there are many people who share the Islamist ideas, who even join the ranks of ISIS pushed by their faith? Can we really talk about the end of political Islam? Or maybe this is true for the current moment of history for some countries, and then the Islamists will return to power? Do you think that it is an absolute end with no possibility of recovery?

 

MT: Well, if we’re going to talk about the Muslim Brotherhood, we should look deep in its history. The movement's ideologue, Saïd al-Qotb, had spent one year in the United States and was overwhelmed by all the expressions of modernity, shocked by the decadence of the lifestyle and so on. And so he came back with a reaffirmed conviction that Muslim societies, which were lagging behind, could not in any way reach the West, nor improve their conditions within the Western model because the Western model was decadent – and therefore there should be an Islamic solution. He came up with the slogan: Islam is the solution. In the minds of al- Qotb and his successors, we should go back to the Islamic tradition, to the past. We have to renew the things that we have lost, we have to revive the ways of the Prophet, the ways of the caliphs, and the ways of those who the caliphs governed to solve today’s problems. Sometimes they got the chance to act openly; sometimes they were oppressed. But the Muslim Brotherhood persisted in Egypt through several different experiments in nation-building: first, the Pan-Arabism of Nasser, which failed, then pan-socialism. (This was also during Nasser’s time; what started as a Pan-Arabism evolved into the propaganda of Arab socialism under the influence of the Soviet Union and following Egypt’s problems with the U.S. due to the Israel issue.) That also failed. Then came Sadat, and a new period of authoritarian nationalism, which continued through Sadat’s rule and most of Mubarak’s rule. In the background, there was always a possibility of an “Islamic solution,” but until the revolution, the Islamists never had the chance to prove that their solution worked. And this is why they were elected by a majority in Egypt: because the people believed that since all the previous solutions had failed, these guys must have the answer. We know the result – in Egypt as well as in Tunisia. The Islamists were given a chance to rule for three years and they were a total failure. This is why I say the movement is over – because they had a chance to make an impact –

 

MD: But the chance is lost.

 

MT: It is for today. Take communism! It had its time. The industrial revolution saddled the labor class with numerous problems. Then came Marx with a beautiful theory, Engels to transform this theory into action, then Lenin and so forth. For all of them, communism was a solution. Seventy-five years later, it collapsed. It could not satisfy people’s demands and aspirations. The propaganda claimed, «We are better than the West», but the reality was different. Now having seen and lived in a consumer society, Russians are not going back to communism. Communism had its chance, but it failed.

Similarly, political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood won’t come back. That’s why there is a crisis within the MB. There is a big crisis within Ennahda in Tunisia, too, because they know that they have failed. They have to review and revise their ideology and rid it of ideas like the establishment of sharia. Perhaps they should think of themselves as a Muslim party in the same way Christian democrats in Europe are inspired by Christian principles, but do not try to create a system of governance based in Christian authority. As long as the Islamists continue trying to create a system of governance according to Islam (such as sharia), as long as they stay as they are, they have no chance of being part of the political system and the society.

 

MD: Ok! But if the Islamist ideas are no longer attractive to these societies – taking into account the dramatic catastrophe that is going in Iraq and Syria – why do they still appear to be attractive for Europeans, who are fleeing the countries they are living in and joining ISIS? Why, as this kind of Islamism loses its influence in the Middle East, is it at the same time gaining supporters and partisans in Western societies?

 

MT: The reason for this is a failure of European countries in integrating Muslim immigrants. If you look at those who are joining the ranks of ISIS, they are marginalized youth. Many have been in prison or were drugs addicts. This is what I love about sociology – you are going to the roots of social problems. It’s clear if you look at the biographies of those who have joined ISIS that there has been a failure of immigration policy and failure of integration of Muslim immigrants into European societies. The reason why the ideology is attractive is because the youth who are rejected, who are marginalized, find in the preaching of those extremists who approach them something they can identify themselves with while seeking revenge against the West. If you look at the videos they produce and analyze the language of these videos, they are all about revenge. Take another symbol– the robe their prisoners wear. Those orange clothes are meant to remind you of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where the Americans tortured their prisoners.

 

MD: Lakhdar Brahimi accused the West of contributing to the creation of ISIS. Do you agree with him?

 

MT: No. The West produced horrors that remained in the imagination of these young people, who saw these images on TV. And when you are living in a marginalized society, or society group, growing up with the images of torture of Muslim co-religionists in Syria and Iraq, then you are growing up with the feeling that you should take revenge. And in that sense, the West has contributed, but not – at least in my perspective – by allowing or helping ISIS to be formed. We have to be very careful. But in the sense of the 2003 Iraq war having influence on the formation of ISIS – yes, he is absolutely right. If you look at the composition of ISIS, at who the soldiers are…

 

MD: The ex-Saddam soldiers!

 

MT: Yes! And the U.S.’s big mistake in the early years of the occupation was the disbandment of the Iraqi army, which created an army of unhappy people dreaming of revenge.

 

Read 17349 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 March 2015 12:48
Mustapha Tlili

Mustapha Tlili is a Senior Advisor to the High Representative for the Alliance of Civilisations of the United Nations.

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