Power games of Islamists reflect internal politics
It was always clear that, given a free, democratic vote, post-revolutionary countries such as Egypt and Tunisia would return parliaments with high percentages of Islamist members. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Ennahda (Renaissance) party in Tunisia both have deep roots, strong organisation and hard-won credibility for being corruption-free, distributing social welfare and remaining steadfast in opposition to dictators who repressed them.
But it wasn't always clear that, once in government, political Islam in these countries could be so monopolist and exclusionary. While at one point, Islamist movements in Egypt and Tunisia may have seemed leagues apart in style, the similarities are now growing, in government.
In Egypt, the opposition is in the eye of a long, dark storm precipitated late last year, when President Mohammed Morsi issued a decree to consolidate his power and immunise his position against legal challenges.
"With that one speech, Morsi rallied opposition groups against him and the Brotherhood," says Dr Mohamed-Salah Omri, of St John's College at the University of Oxford. That decree was swiftly followed by a rushed, flawed and disputed constitution and, at the same time, a series of crackdowns on the independence of the media and the functioning of civil society groups.
Last week, Amnesty International reported that Egypt had hit a "new low" on NGO restrictions that prevent contact with foreign organisations without security approval. "We fear that the authorities are yet again trying to push through legislation to stifle civil society to prevent criticism," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the organisation's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
In Tunisia, disillusion with the Ennahda-led coalition exploded onto the streets after the tragic killing of opposition figure Chokri Belaid, in early February. That exposed the terrible, escalating political violence in Tunisia that has fermented over the past year - a recent Human Rights Watch report chronicles a litany of "religiously motivated" attacks on intellectuals, artists and political figures.
Ennahda has been accused of doing nothing to stem this violence, for fear of losing political ground to the ultraconservative Salafists thought to be behind such attacks.
Ennahda's prime minister Hamdi Jebali resigned on February 19th, after his idea of forming an emergency government of technocrats was rejected. He apologised to Tunisians for "failing and disappointing" them - even though it is surely the division within his party that is the real disappointment.
Tunisia has "moved from some sort of immediate revolutionary harmony to a political phase of polarisation", says Dr Omri. Prior to the historic first free elections of October 2011, Ennahda officials spoke of the need to cooperate with other parties and strive for unity in the post-revolutionary period. "Ennahda had an outward discourse on power sharing and collaboration, but it was not matched in practice," says Dr Omri. "It ended up dominating government and making unilateral decisions."
There have been similar complaints from other non-religious members of the three-party coalition government - known in Tunisia as the "troika". Weeks before Belaid was killed, the troika was faltering under talks over a cabinet reshuffle, with the leading Ennahda party accused of dominating, through hanging onto key ministerial positions.
But why the seeming change of approach from Ennahda? Some analysts have suggested that Islamist parties simply haven't yet acquired the skills to rule. "Islamist groups that had been hitherto purely anti-establishment were taken by surprise when they found themselves having to be at the helm, due to a vacuum on the side of secular opposition groups", a Tunisian expert on Islamic movements, Salah Jourchi, told Agence France-Presse earlier this month.
Another suggestion put forward is that Islamic movements, having spent decades underground, see self-preservation as the foremost aim. Now in power, these parties are operating on the same basis, placing this objective above others, such as building an inclusive democracy.
Others have noted a tendency for Islamist parties to assume that winning elections is a much brighter green light than is actually the case. Speaking to the New York Times, Khalil Al Anani, a scholar of Middle East Studies at the UK's Durham University, explained: "They replicate the policies of authoritarian regimes, and underestimate the weight of secular and liberal forces." In the post-uprisings period, this just isn't possible because the opposition can get organised and push back, beyond the ballot box.
Part of the popular impatience and discontent is, of course, to do with the slow pace of reform: in both countries, there is frustration over economic insecurity, spiralling unemployment, lack of security and the excruciatingly slow pursuit of justice for the families of those killed during the revolutions. Certainly there exists hostility to Islamist rule purely on principle, in both countries. But another layer of frustration is to do with bad faith over a lack of accountability.
Islamist parties such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Ennahda are home-grown movements, popular, credible in opposition, so there remains an expectation that they will do the right thing. Concurrently, and beyond the opposition movements, there's a lingering reluctance to believe the worst: that these parties may be constitutionally incapable of operating on the basis of the consensus politics that are so badly needed now.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and the author of Not the Enemy - Israel's Jews from Arab Lands
On Twitter: @rachshabi
Updated: February 28, 2013 04:00 AM