Militant Secularism in the Middle East?

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.

28 Responses

  1. Palestine is yet another example of militant secularism.

    The Fatah Party has had its militant elements – such as the Tanzim militia.

    The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine carried out the killing of Rehavam Ben Ze’evi in 2002 and a limited number of terror attacks during the Second Intifada.

  2. “The real question is whether a place can be found in Egyptian politics for the Muslim Brotherhood.”

    And if a place can be found in Egyptian politics for the Muslim Brotherhood, the question then becomes: Can the Muslim Brotherhood behave in the manner of a mature political party that is one among several, without attempting to overreach its mandate and impose its views on the Egyptian state and public?

  3. RE: Egyptian people, “…most of them from all accounts have turned on the Muslim Brotherhood.” Their party got a majority in recent elections. They have enough support out in the villages, and cannot be dismissed so easily. What the minority secular types have witnessed is a couple of coups d’etat by the military. Egypt is status quo ante, ruled by the junta of military families as it was three years ago, with the MB an underground proscribed “incorrect” organization. Nothing has changed. The new constitution will mean the same as the last two or three: nothing. Sisi has simply taken Mubarak’s place.

    • Those “recent elections” were almost a year and a half ago. Surely you’ve noticed that there have been changed in Egyptian public opinion since then.

      The amount of time that has passed between the most recent Egyptian elections and the present is roughly the same amount of time that passed between Barack Obama’s election and Scott Brown’s victory in a Massachusetts Senate race.

  4. For me, any turning away by the Arab masses towards religious parties is actually a rejection of what they see as corruption in Western-style system. I cannot fault them one bit.

    After all, they merely have to look at political conditions inside most Western nations and witness disconnected public and massive legalized corruption.

    For them, it could simply be a case of “thank, but no thanks”.

  5. It is an irony when officers guilty of multiple crimes against humanity refer to their political foes as “cultists” and “terrorists” when these labels very much apply to themselves.

    The next stage, particularly in Egypt, appears to the revolutionary youth, the sane parts of the media, and the left against the generals and the military-industrial-media comlex.

    • While what you write is true, David, what is actually happening right now, here in Egypt, is that the military are cementing their hold on the country, and that “revolutionary youth,” and those parts of “the media” and the “left” you speak of are now being brought to heel just as much as the Muslim Brotherhood is. The military obviously have no intention of releasing their grip on the society. Do you know about the two Canadian journalists on hunger strikes? Do you know about the refusal to allow media coverage of what’s going on in the Sinai? Dr. Cole’s estimate of the situation is far too sanguine…

  6. Thank you for writing this.

    Far too much of the commentary about Egypt and Syria has discussed those situations in terms of a two-sided conflict (fascist/military dictators vs. Islamists), when it is actually three-sided.

    One would think that the third side, the youth/liberal/labor protest movements, would be the natural recipient of left-liberal support, but instead, they tend to get overlooked entirely. Commentary about the coup in Egypt* has ignored the massive anti-Morsi street protests, while the Arab Spring successors in Syria get lumped in under the heading “al Qaeda.”

    *the second, 2013, coup. The first coup, which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces conducted against Mubarak, is described exactly the opposite way, with the role of the military leadership ignored entirely, and the street protests assumed to be the sole force behind his ouster.

  7. Isn’t the danger from Arab Spring, that it exposes the deep divide between a substantial fundamentalist leaning block, and those who want a secular government? This is actually not that different from the situation in the USA, where fundamentalist leaning Christians have significant influence over one of our two major political parties. In my mind the biggest difference between the two regions is that the US had a long developed democracy before our secular/fundamentalist struggle emerged.

  8. I really think there is nothing to rejoice about when the proponents of democracy in Egypt having failed to overcome their fractiousness and vanity, decide to welcome a military crackdown on the party that did win the elections and when that party is persecuted, arrested and driven underground. It may no longer be an “Islamic winter” in fact it never was, but it is a terrible setback for democratization and to be deplored, not celebrated.

  9. sounds like an AKP/Mustafa Akyol editorial. What does “militant secularism” sound like? What are is threats?

    • Good grief.

      Ataturk’s Turkey (as I’m sure you’re from) is a fine example of militant secularism ( Ba’athist dictatorships would be another example).


      (1) Military coups of several democratically elected governments (just because the PM was either left-wing or a practicing Muslim).

      (2). Practicing Muslims were forced to secularize (in some cases, violently). As you know, religion is controlled by (not separated from) the state.

      (3). Practicing Muslims were denied a basic rights of access to education and employment (Erdogan himself was arrested once when he was Mayor for reading a religiously inspired poem).

      (4). A soldier would be discharged from the military if his/her mother wore a headscarf (to a Kemalists, a headscarf is a political symbol) or if he/she was caught praying/fasting.

      (5). Kurdish language was suppressed (you couldn’t read, write and speak Kurdish).

      (6). Murder of political dissidents (I know Erdogan sues them or has them arrested).

      Nearly 100 years has passed in Turkey and Islam still remains there (and religious practice is increasing) after military rule and strong secular PMs.

      PS. I’m not from Turkey and I don’t care for fascists (religious, secular or otherwise).

    • People hang in groups. Groups tend to change, membership, motivations, all that stuff. One pathway for so many, where the groundwork is in place, thanks to history or intervention, is “militant nationalism.” One expression of that might be some small part of what’s going on in Syria, and elsewhere. Maybe this little report is part of it:

      “A Syrian solution to civil conflict? The Free Syrian Army is holding talks with Assad’s senior staff — Secret approach to the President could reshape the whole war”

      link to

      Query whether what is going on in Syria, and proposing to spread more widely, is a “war,” or something else even more ugly…

      One has to wonder what actually motivates a creature like Bashar Assad and the creatures he surrounds himself with or inherited…

      • “One has to wonder what actually motivates a creature like Bashar Assad and the creatures he surrounds himself with or inherited…”

        When it comes to political elites and those who wish to be in the ascendancy — whether you are talking about Syria or Washington, DC — it’s about access to and control of resources, including financial, and the ability to exert authority and shape people’s views

      • The Independent article by Robert Fisk makes several interesting points:

        (1)The Central Intelligence Agency’s attempt to “vet” out rebel groups for receipt of arms shipments appears to be a dismal failure as some Free Syrian Army (FSA) units have already been defecting over to the Jabhat Al-Nusra Front-allied forces, presumably with their weapons that had been secured, at least partially, via CIA-brokered purchases;

        (2)The FSA (led by former Syrian Army officers)appear to be intermingling freely in cities held by the government – leading one to reasonably conclude that some interim deal has already been reached between the FSA and the Baathist government;

        (3)The UN chemical inspection teams are under the protection of rebel forces and there appears to be indications of evidence tampering/manipulation.

        A key question to be raised is who is calling the shots in the secular “Syrian resistance”? The FSA leadership? The Syrian National Coalition? Something smells fishy if the FSA folds up and goes home while Assad remains in power with the unenforceable “promise” of free and democratic elections.

  10. Why do we want the Muslim Brotherhood to be active in Egyptian politics? Why would the Egyptians themselves want it?

    People can be for parliamentary democracy and not be liberals. It makes perfect sense for the MB to embrace democracy then and now when the Egyptian military keeps proving to them that they can’t gain power any other way. Turkey is much the same way: the JDP got power by portraying itself as democrats against de facto military rule and by appealing to populist aspirations and resentments against a secular, Westernized urban elite.

    But what happens when populist aspirations and resentments are themselves Islamist? What is the “silent majority” of an Arab and Islamic society likely to vote for?

    • Because if they are not included, Eqypt might end up with a decade of internal terrorism, like Algeria. They are part of the countries spectrum of worldviews, they should be part of the democracy. They shouldn’t be allowed to dominate it, but they shouldn’t be excluded.

  11. Lets take a serious look at the recent events.

    Liberal opponents of the elected government in Egypt were manipulated into giving a populist face to the return of the old regime that were still hiding in the military, police, judiciary and other branches of government.

    Dissatisfaction with Morsi was heavily swayed by his inability to change things. He incorrectly depended on elements of the old regime throughout government who openly stymied his moves, and took steps to make things appear worse. The media played a strong role in attacking Morsi as well.

    I am not a Morsi supporter, but I do believe that democracy is the best course for Egypt. The opponents of Morsi should have worked as hard in building political parties and then shown their weight in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The path they chose of siding with the old regime and the military had far greater risk than working to build parties and effect the government that way.

  12. I find it extremely sad that the MB in power were lukewarm in their attitude and actions towards Gaza, and now the military has destroyed virtually all the tunnels and closed the only crossing, thus aiding Israel in its continual cruelty to Palestinians, who have always found the Egyptian people to be their friends and allies.

  13. Militant secularists are what gave Egypt a new military dictatorship which has already slain over a thousand people and banned political parties which represented a large plurality of Egyptian voters.

    A fine start, full of promise. Onward militant secularists!

  14. The Arab uprisings were done with one eye on Turkey, where the AKP (a religious party not so different from the Muslim Brotherhoods of Egypt and Syria) has been slowly dismantling the ability of secularists, e.g. in the Turkish military, to dislodge them. Secularists, and those from the “wrong” religions (such as the Alevis) are becoming second-class citizens, while ambitious young people often find it advantageous to join one of the religious networks. If the secularists do not act now to suppress their religious rivals, their power will become permanent, and then what kind of country will Turkey be?

  15. Dear Prof. Cole,

    I understand that there were parliamentary elections scheduled for the summer of 2013 in Egypt. What were the expectations for how the Muslim Brotherhood would do in those elections? Were the Tamarrud expected to challenge in these elections or would the Brotherhood have won again? Of course we will never know, as the coup preempted this outcome.


  16. Even under Mubarak, Egypt was governed by Islamic law to the same extent that, say, Iran is. So, why frame the issue as one about law?

    Here, you’re following the conventional wisdom in American academia, which takes Islamic law to be the raison d’etre of Islamism. Yet, in both secular regimes (Egypt) and theocratic ones (Iran), the legal patterns are the same: some parts of classical fiqh are abandoned (such as slavery or commercial law) while other parts are retained and reformed: the classical laws of personal status are applied in a reformed form that gives women greater rights than in the past.

    The only places in MENA that Islamic law was abolished is Turkey and Tunisia, right?

    The second issue I’d like to raise is that one must not equate the (un)popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood with the (un)popularity of Islamism. There is wider support for Islamism than the Brotherhood’s (un)popularity might suggest.

    Finally, I wonder where the Islamist youth fit in the above discussion. Were they apathetic, or are they just as involved as the non-Islamists? Thanks!

  17. You can’t create a democratic society operating under the rule of law through a military coup of a democratically elected government. However much you detest Morsi, he remains the only Egyptian Leader chosen freely by the people in a 5000 year history.

    That is why it is an Egyptian winter moving from democracy – however imperfect – to a military regime which mows down hundreds of protestors with machine guns and locks up political prisoners.

    Morsi won at the ballot box. He should have lost at the ballot box, and I remain unconvinced his continued rule would have been worse than the present regime. The claims he was attempting to subvert an election and head a constitutionally illegal government was not true at the time of the coup.

    The coup has probably saved the Brotherhood. Saved them from a crashing defeat at the election where even strong supporters came to realize the Brotherhood were a bad choice to govern. That is democracy – not just electing a government but respecting the votes of others and working to change the next government by voting.

    So now we have an underground organization, stabbed in the back by powerful and undefined forces. Given Egypt’s often violent past and an understandable aversion to democratic methods, the coup is a disaster for Egypt and Arab democracy.

    • We’ll put. Democracy can be hard (civil rights) and frustrating (George Bush) but you have to remain committed to the process

  18. The MB is a part of the “old politics” of Egypt and their chance to rule in the manner of their predecessors simply came to late. No one was looking for the NDP with beards. The “secular” youth” and the labor unions are more closely attuned to the goals of the 25 January Revolution that the MB didn’t seem to care about. However, unless they can find a way to “get out from under” the military and the rest of the old order, they are condemned to repeat the scenario of “uprising followed by reassertion of the deep state under a new guise.”

    It will probably take a lot of blood to get out from under, if and when it happens. Right now, the youth and their allies lack the organizational capacity and fervor alone won’t change the system from the bottom up. The MB is SO 20th century!

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