The youth organizations that made the 2011 revolutions were predominantly leftist or liberal. They revolted against seedy police states run by family cartels and their cronies. They had allies among labor unions and office workers.
These movements demanded free, fair parliamentary elections as the next step. But the groups best organized to campaign, canvass and fund-raise were the Muslim religious parties and to some extent the left-overs of the old regime.
The Muslim religious parties got about 60% of the seats in the Egyptian parliament in fall of 2011. Although that parliament was struck down by the courts for electoral irregularities, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Morsi, won the presidency in June, 2012, and installed many party hacks in high positions. The Renaissance or al-Nahdah, religiously-inflected party won 42% of the seats in the Tunisian parliament and gained the prime ministership, though they had to ally with liberals and leftists, from which the president and speaker of parliament were drawn.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya did poorly in the summer, 2012 parliamentary elections there, a significant number of independents lean toward the religious right, though not a majority.
These outcomes were branded an “Islamic winter” by Neoconservative critics of the Arab world (what would you call people who are professional critics of a single ethnic group, about whom they never have anything positive to say?)
A raft of articles and books were published with the thesis that Arabs are religion-obsessed fanatics who can never be truly democratic because of their fascination with theocracy.
But in fall of 2013, things look different. A youth movement, Rebellion (Tamarrud) staged enormous demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt on June 30 and after, provoking a military coup and a thoroughgoing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been largely broken and driven underground. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been condemned by the officer corps and activist youth as dictatorial, secretive and grasping, as in short a kind of cult. The generals now dismiss it as a terrorist organization, having arrested 2000 party leaders. As a military-appointed commission crafts a new constitution, it is likely that it will outlaw religiously-based parties permanently. Most Egyptians are believers and either practicing Muslims or Coptic Christians. But most of them from all accounts have turned on the Muslim Brotherhood.
In summer of 2013, as well, Tunisian youth and the labor activists of the UGTT (French acronym for General Union of Tunisian Workers) challenging the Renaissance, Muslim-religious prime minister, Ali Larayedh. They blamed him for being soft on Muslim terrorists and allowing two assassinations of members of the far-left Popular Front. They demanded he step down in favor of a caretaker government that would oversee free and fair parliamentary elections. Thousands assembled regularly at Bardo outside the parliament building, and the alliance of the crowds with the powerful UGTT gave them a bargaining chip. If the country’s workers struck en mass, it would paralyze the Tunisian economy, already limping. So by the past weekend, the Renaissance Party had agreed to step down in favor of a caretaker government. Many among the Tunisian demonstrators use a militantly secular discourse.
The Muslim religious parties are not in control of Egypt and nor do the have a firm grasp on power any more in Tunisia. They are merely influential in Libya, with leftist and pragmatic members of parliament dominating the scene politically.
Likewise in Yemen, the religious right has not taken over the country. In northern Syria, as strong division developed between the Muslim fundamentalist rebels against the regime, and the more nationalist Free Syrian Army. There have been firefights between the two.
The long and the short of it is that there has been a vast and thorough-going reaction against the religious parties this summer and fall. Bloggers have sometimes declared themselves atheists, though that is rare and can result in prosecution.
But the fears of the imminent imposition of Islamic law over a vast stretch of the Arab world has subsided. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has lost most of its popularity outside committed cadres, who are being marginalized. The Renaissance Party in Tunisia announced in spring, 2012, that they would not try to implement sharia or Muslim canon law.
So, no more “Islamic winter” talk please. It doesn’t comport with reality. The revolutionary youth in the Arab world is for the most part not theocrats and won’t be ordered around by the clerics. The officer corps likewise reacted against Brotherhood excesses.
The real question is whether a place can be found in Egyptian politics for the Muslim Brotherhood.