By Ramzy Baroud

When the news circulated that Morocco’s leading political group, the Development and Justice Party (PJD), had been trounced in the latest election, held in September, official media mouthpieces in Egypt celebrated the news as if the PJD’s defeat was, in itself, a blow to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Regionally, political commentators who dedicated much of their time to discredit various Islamic political parties – often on behalf of one Arab government or another – found in the news another supposed proof that political Islam was a failure in both theory and practice.


 

‘Regionally, the news of the (PJD) failure was greeted with jubilation,’ Magdi Abdelhadi wrote on the BBC English website. ‘Commentators regarded the fall of PJD as the final nail in the coffin of political Islam,’ he added. 

Missing from such sweeping declarations is that those who greeted the defeat of the PJD with ‘jubilation’ are mostly the very crowd that dismissed political Islam even during its unprecedented surge following the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011; and the same intellectual mercenaries who unashamedly continue to sing the praises of such dictators as General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and the various Arab monarchs in the Gulf. 

The PJD was not only defeated but almost completely demolished as a result of the vote, managing to retain only twelve of the 125 seats it had won in the 2016 election. The reasons behind such failure, however, are being misconstrued by various entities, governments and individuals with the aim of settling old scores and tarnishing political rivals. The ultimate objective here seems to be to cement the status quo where the fate of Arab nations remains in the grip of brutal, corrupt and self-aggrandising rulers who do not tolerate genuine political plurality and democracy.

For those who insist on viewing Arab and Middle Eastern politics through generalised, academic notions, the outcome of the Moroccan election has provided a perfect opportunity to delve further into sweeping statements. These knee-jerk, cliched reactions were boosted by the ongoing political crisis in Tunisia, the main victim of which, aside from Tunisian democracy, is the Ennahda Islamist party.

Democracy crisis in Tunisia

On 25 July, Tunisian President Kais Saied began a series of measures that effectively dismantled the country’s entire democratic infrastructure, while concentrating all power in his hands.

Taking advantage of the poor performances and endemic dysfunction of the country’s major political parties, including Ennahda, as well as the festering economic crisis and the growing dissatisfaction among ordinary Tunisians, Saied justified his actions as a way ‘to save the state and society’.

An academic with no real political experience, Saied provided no roadmap to restore the country’s democracy or to fix its many socio-economic ailments. Instead, on 29 September, he appointed another inexperienced politician, also an academic, Najla Bouden Romdhane, to form a government. Saied’s choice of selecting a woman for the post – making her the first Arab woman prime minister – was probably designed to communicate a message of progressive politics, and to win himself more time. But to what end? 

In reviewing Saied’s political programme since July, The Economist argued that the Tunisian president had ‘announced little in the way of an economic program, apart from inchoate plans to fight corruption and use the proceeds to fund development’. Saied’s strategy for lowering inflation is ‘to ask businesses to offer discounts’, according to the London-based publication, hardly the radical reordering of a country’s devastated economy. 

Frustrated by the failure to translate Tunisia’s budding democracy into a tangible difference that can be experienced in the everyday life of ordinary, unemployed and impoverished people, Tunisia’s public opinion has shifted gradually over the years. This small nation, which in 2011 had sought salvation through democracy, now links democracy with economic prosperity. According to a public opinion poll conducted by Arab Barometer in July 2021, three-quarters of Tunisians define democracy in terms of economic outcomes. Since the desired outcomes were not delivered under a succession of governments that ruled the country over the past decade, 87 per cent of Tunisians supported their president’s decision to sack the parliament. They may have hoped that Saied’s measures would reverse the devastating economic crisis. However, as it is becoming clear that Saied has no clear plan to steer Tunisia away from the tragic path of Lebanon and other failed economies, protesters are taking to the streets again, demanding a restoration of democracy and a return to plurality.

Deterministic vs Dynamic politics 

When the uprisings began in Tunisia late 2010 and spread across the region, it seemed that the fall of dictators and the rise of democracy was inevitable; also certain seemed the rise of Islamic parties, which had registered substantial victories in various democratic elections throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – which was founded by the country’s Muslim Brotherhood – won 37 per cent of the votes in the parliamentary election in 2011; Morocco’s PJD secured over 25 per cent of available seats in the parliament; and Ennahda obtained 89 of 217 seats.

At the time, it was common to discuss Islamic parties as if they were all branches of the same ideological movement. In fact, in the view of some, even the same political movement. ‘Political Islam’ became synonymous with the ‘Arab Spring’. Some saw this as an opportunity for ‘moderate’ Muslims – marginalised, exiled and often tortured and killed – finally to claim what was rightfully theirs; others, namely Israeli and right-wing western intellectuals and politicians, decried what they saw as an ‘Islamic Winter’, claiming that democracy and Islam would espouse an even greater anti-western and anti-Israeli sentiment. 

Often missing from most of these discussions was the national context under which all Arab politics, whether Islamic-leaning or otherwise, operate. In Morocco, for example, King Mohammed VI played his own political game to ensure the survival of the monarchy in the age of democratisation. He quickly drew the Islamists nearer to him, offered a veneer of democracy, while practically holding on to all aspects of power.

Though it will take time to reach a conclusive analysis, it is possible that the PJD’s downfall was a result of its willingness to compromise on its declared principles in exchange for a very limited share of power. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if the Islamic party, elected to steer the country away from the rule of a single individual, was serving the role of the King’s official political party. This was manifested in the PJD’s acceptance and eventual endorsement of Morocco’s normalisation of ties with the State of Israel in December 2020. 

The Islamists’ recent defeat in Morocco, however, must not be viewed as a crisis in political Islam, for the latter is a theoretical concept that is in constant flux and is open to various, often radically opposing, interpretations by different scholars and under different historical contexts. While the PJD, for example, signed off on the King’s normalisation with Israel, Ennahda vehemently rejected it. Indeed, each Islamic party seems to behave according to different sets of priorities that are unique to that party, to its socio-economic setting, national context, political objectives and, ultimately, to its own unique interests. 

Causes for optimism 

Instead of resorting to abstract notions and generalisations, such as ‘the fall of PJD (being) the final nail in the coffin of political Islam’, an alternative, and more sensible reading is possible. First, most Arab voters, like voters everywhere, judge politicians based on performance, not hype, slogans and chants. This is as true for Islamic parties as it is for socialists, secularists and all others; and it is as applicable to the Middle East as it to the rest of the world. 

Second, Morocco is a unique political space that must be analysed separately from Tunisia, and the latter from Egypt, or Palestine, and so on. While it is academically sound to speak of political phenomena, generalisations cannot be easily applied to everyday political outcomes. 

Third, the fact that the PJD is quietly retreating to the ranks of the opposition and that Ennahda is experiencing a substantial overhaul, is an indication that Islamic parties have, not only in theory but also in practice, accepted some of the main pillars of democracy and constructive plurality: democratic alternation, self-introspection and soul-searching.

Those who have comforted themselves with the misapprehension that political Islam is dead are reminiscent, in their self-deception, of Francis Fukuyama’s theory on the ‘end of history’ after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the temporarily-uncontested rise of the US as the world’s only superpower. Such provisional thinking is not only irrational, but is itself an outcome of ideologically-motivated wishful thinking. In the end, history remained in motion, as it always will.

While the Justice and Development Party, Ennahda and other Islamic parties have much reflection to do, it must be remembered that the future is not shaped by deterministic notions, but by dynamic processes that constantly produce new variables and, thus, new results. This is as true in North Africa as it has been proven to be in the rest of the world. 

* Dr Ramzy Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Afro-Middle East Centre. He is also the editor of The Palestine Chronicle, and the author of five books, the latest being These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons.

Ramzy Baroud Book Tour

The Afro-Middle East Centre is honoured to host well-known Palestinian journalist and author, Dr Ramzy Baroud, for a book tour in South Africa to launch his most recent book, The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story.

Baroud will be addressing audiences in six cities across South Africa: Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Polokwane. See the full list of events below. Click here for poster adverts for all his events. Apart from his book launches in different cities, Baroud will also be hosted Palestine solidarity organisations for public lectures in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and Polokwane.

Ramzy Baroud is a US-Palestinian journalist, media consultant, author, internationally-syndicated columnist, editor of Palestine Chronicle (1999-present), former managing editor of London-based Middle East Eye (2014-15), former editor-in-chief of The Brunei Times, former deputy managing editor of Al Jazeera online. He taught mass communication at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. Baroud also served as head of Aljazeera.net English’s Research and Studies department. He is the author of four books and a contributor to many others; his latest volume is The Last Earth, a Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). His books have been translated into several languages including French, Turkish, Arabic, Korean and Malayalam, among others. Baroud has a PhD in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter (2015), and was a non-resident scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara (2016-17). His forthcoming book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggles and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. He is currently a non-resident scholar at Istanbul Zaim University’s Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA).

Baroud’s work has been published in hundreds of newspapers and journals worldwide, including The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, Arab News, The Miami Herald, The Japan Times, Al-Ahram Weekly, Asia Times, Al Jazeera, Gulf News and nearly every English language publication throughout the Middle East. His work is regularly translated and republished in French, Spanish, Arabic and other languages. He has contributed to and was referenced in hundreds of books and academic journals.

He has been a guest on many television and radio programmes, including RT TV, CNN International, BBC, ABC Australia, National Public Radio, Press TV, Aljazeera and many other stations.

He is the author of four books: Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion (Cune Press, Seattle, 2003); The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London, 2006); My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London, 2010); and The Last Earth, a Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). Baroud is also the co-author, with Samah Sabawi and Jehan Bseiso, of the poetry collection: I Remember My Name (Novum, 2016). His books are available in French, Turkish, Arabic, Korean and other languages.

Baroud has been a guest speaker at many top universities around the world, including George Mason University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Rutgers University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Manchester, University of Ireland, University of Washington, Penn State University and the University of Kwazulu Natal in South Africa.

Baroud spoke and conducted book tours in over twenty-five countries.

 

Johannesburg Events

Date and Time

Events

Venue and Time

Monday,
16 September 2019
18:30 – 20:00

Ramzy Baroud public lecture hosted by Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Palestine Solidarity Alliance (PSA), South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) and Media Review Network (MRN)

Suleiman Nana Memorial Centre, Crosby

 

Tuesday,
17 September 2019
18:00 – 20:00

Public Meeting hosted by Palestine Solidarity Alliance (PSA), Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP), Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and Media Review Network (MRN).

Baitun Noor Hall, Lenasia, Topaas Street, Ext 5, Lenasia

 

Wednesday,
18 September 2019
12:00 -13:00

Launch of The Last Earth:  A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by Afro-Middle East Centre and Institute for Economic Research on Innovation (IERI)

IERI Boardroom, 159 Nana Sita Street, Pretoria

 

Wednesday,
18 September 2019
18:30 -20:00

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story with Ramzy Baroud, Daryl Glaser and Karima Brown, hosted by Afro-Middle East Centre and Department of Political Studies at Wits

Robert Sobukwe Room 207, Wits University

 

 

Durban Events

Date and Time

Events

Venue

Thursday,
19 September 2019
15:00 - 17:00

Public lecture: "Palestinian struggle: Opportunities and pitfalls", with Ramzy Baroud hosted by KZN Palestine Solidarity Forum (KZN PSF)

Women’s Cultural Group Hall, 222 Kenilworth Road, Overport

 

Thursday,
19 September 2019
18:30 -19:30

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by Al-Qalam and Afro-Middle East Centre

Suleman Lockhat Auditorium, 222 Kenilworth Road, Durban

 

 

Port Elizabeth Events

Date and Time

Events

Venue

Friday,
20 September 2019
18:30 – 20:00

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by Afro-Middle East Centre, Black Management Forum and Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy

The Anthenaeum, 7 Athol Fugard Terrace, Port Elizabeth Central

 

 

Cape Town Events

Date and Time

Events

Venue

Sunday,
22 September 2019
14:00

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by Afro-Middle East Centre and Muslim Youth Movement and Al-Ikhlaas Library and Resource Centre

Islamia Auditorium, 409 Imam Haron Road, Lansdowne, Cape Town

Monday,
23 September 2019
18:30

Public Meeting: "The crisis in the Middle East, Israel’s influence in Africa and prospects for Palestine’s liberation", hosted by Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Solidarity Centre, AIDC, 129 Rochester Road, Observatory

 

Polokwane Events

Date and Time

Events

Venue

Tuesday,
24 September 2019
11:00

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by AMEC, UNISA, NEHAWU, YCL, ANCYL, SASCO, ANC and PSA

Main Hall, 24 Landdros Mare Street, UNISA Polokwane Central, Polokwane

Tuesday,
24 September 2019
14:00

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by University of Limpopo and Afro-Middle East Centre

M Block, University of Limpopo

 

 

 

 

 

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