European countries happily charting the progress of an illusory Arab Spring and the gains of so called “moderate Islamic parties” should take a long, hard look at what is really happening across the Mediterranean.
The next heads of government in Tunisia and Morocco as well as in Egypt are likely to belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, their respective parties having won in “democratic elections.” In Libya and Algeria Islamist forces are also gaining prominence.
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In Tunisia, Ennahda, “the renewal” party, started in the early 1970s as a clandestine Islamic movement led by Ahmad Rashad Ghannouchi, who was a fervent disciple of the most extreme modern Islamic thinker, Sayed Qutub (1906-1966), the leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the ’50s and ’60s.
At first Ennahda devoted all its energy to fighting Habib Bourguiba – the first president of the country after it gained independence from France in 1957 – and his attempts to impose a secular regime.
Ennahda became a political party in 1981.
President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali outlawed it when it became a threat in the ’90s, and jailed thousands of militants. Ghannouchi managed to escape and was granted political asylum in Great Britain; acting with the utmost discretion, he nevertheless kept on directing the party’s activities towards developing its social infrastructure throughout Tunisia.
With the fall of Ben Ali in January 2011, Ghannouchi returned home and in a mere nine months was able to reorganize the party thanks to its existing infrastructure, leading it to victory in October’s election.
With 40 percent of the seats in parliament, Ennahda is the largest party and is about to form the government with two small left-wing formations. the prime minister will be Hamadi Jebaly, the party’s general secretary, a well-known Islamist extremist, who hastened to proclaim that he will work for the restoration of the caliphate and the conquest of Jerusalem.
The newly elected parliament led by Ennahda will act as a constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution; in other words, it will produce an Islamic constitution and Shari’a law will be the fount of the social and judicial system.
Ennahda representatives have already said that they will demand the inclusion of an article in the constitution precluding the establishment of relations with Israel. Ghannouchi himself said several months ago that he would not take part in the electoral process, probably in order not to alarm local and international public opinion. After all, he is a member of the international committee of the Muslim Brotherhood. In a recent newspaper interview he called for the destruction of Israel.
In Morocco as well, it is an extremist Islamist party which has won the election, though less decisively. The Justice and Development Party, established in 1967 as a nationalist movement within the framework of the conflict with the king, was a minor opposition party. In 1996, a small Islamist group took it over and turned it into an Islamist party with an Islamic political program.
In November 25’s election, held following the constitutional reform granted by King Mohammed VI in the wake of the Arab Spring, Justice and Development won 107 of the 395 seats, becoming the largest party. Its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, was asked by the king to form the new government in accordance with the constitutional reform. Former prime minister Abbas El Fassi agreed to enter the coalition.
Benkirane had become secretary- general of the party in 2008 after following a long and twisted path. He enjoys a dubious reputation as an opportunist.
Abd al-Salam Yasin, leader of the Justice and Charity Islamist movement, dubbed him: “A man lacking positive qualities such as helping the other or being respectful of honor,” while a former religious teacher went as far as to say he was treacherous and cowardly.
He will probably try to impose extremist religious reforms, but will have to contend with the special nature of Morocco. Mohammed VI is the scion of a family tracing its ancestry to the Prophet Muhammad; he bears the title of “Commander of the Faithful” which was given to the first four caliphs. As such he enjoys wide religious prestige in Morocco, and Benkirane will find it difficult to promote religious reforms without his agreement. So far the new prime minister keeps reiterating his allegiance to the monarch.
The situation is not yet clearcut in Libya.
Though Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib has announced the composition of his government, it is doubtful that it will receive the blessing of the Muslim Brothers, who did not get any of the portfolios they demanded: Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs, in spite of their overwhelming representation in the National Transition Council.
Abdelhakim Belhadj, a hard-liner Islamist heading the Tripoli military council is threatening to use force if what he calls the lack of respect for Islamists goes on.
In Algeria, Abdallah Djaballah, one of the leaders of the Islamic movements in the country, has established a new Islamist party and hopes to get the necessary authorizations to have it registered in time to campaign for the next election.
He is in the process of setting up a “national association” to draft its platform and prepare the founding committee of the party. It is his belief that the new, more liberal law governing political parties due to be published in the coming weeks will make it possible for his party to be registered.
Djaballah established other Islamic parties in the past and was a candidate for the presidency, but failed. Today he is confident that the Arab Spring together with the liberal reforms in North Africa and the victory of his colleagues in Tunisia and Morocco will help him gain power in Algiers as well.
In Egypt, the Brothers have come a long way since the ’50s when most of their leaders were executed and 60,000 of them were imprisoned in labor camps after their unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser. Anwar Sadat let them out in the early ’70s because he needed them in his fight against the last followers of Nasser’s nationalist, pan- Arab and socialist policies.
They in turn pledged no longer to seek power by violent means.
They kept their word and devoted their energy to developing a vast network of Islamic preachers and building a political and social infrastructure.
Today, 40 years later, their strategy paid off: They are close to achieving their aim of ruling the country through nonviolent means. No one can complain at what appears to be “democracy at its best.”
One should not, however, forget that elements of the movement broke away to create extremist Islamic groups such Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya and global jihad and contributed to the formation of al-Qaida.
If indeed the Brothers emerge victorious from the elections in Egypt as is widely expected, there will be a new reality throughout North Africa, a region of enormous strategic importance facing Europe’s southern coast and more specifically France, which enjoys a special relationship with its former colonies – Tunisia, Algiers and Morocco.
Libyan oil and Algerian natural gas are a main source of energy for Europe, and particularly for France and Italy. Trade between Europe and North Africa is considerable.
The influx of African refugees transiting North Africa is a major problem for most European countries. To this one must add the large minorities from North Africa settled in Western Europe and refusing to be integrated; this is a source of friction with local populations as well as with local authorities.
It is to be expected that the new Islamic regimes led by parties affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood will want to renegotiate most of the issues at stake with Europe from a position of strength. Europe will find itself opposite a coalition of regimes grounded in a common religious extremism and determined to promote a new type of relationship with the former colonial powers.
The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.