After the Arab Spring, the fall of the Tunisian government opened the way for the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda, to take power. After a decade dominating the state, Ennahda was forced out in the summer of 2021 and since then has been politically disintegrating.
Recently, further difficulties have surfaced for Ennahda as the interim authorities have begun investigating the party’s crimes during its time in office. Ennahda’s troubles occur amid a decline in the fortunes of Islamist groups across the Middle East.
To examine these local and regional dynamics, EER’s ninth webinar gathered an expert panel:
Mohamed Hineidi: an expert in the fields of countering and preventing violent extremism (CVE and PVE), he is the founding director of the Extremist Monitoring Analysis Network (EMAN), a not-for-profit entity that exposes hate speech and radical discourse with the aim to reduce religious and ideological radicalism of all forms.
Khadija T. Moalla: a development specialist with twenty-five years’ experience, ten in senior leadership positions at the United Nations, Ms. Moalla has carried out training and instruction across dozens of countries. An expert in international law, she focuses on issues of gender equality, women’s equality, the rule of law, and civil society.
Hussein Ibish: a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW), he is a regular contributor across the media and is also a weekly columnist for Bloomberg and The National (UAE). Ibish’s most recent book is, What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda? Why Ending the Occupation and Peace with Israel is Still the Palestinian National Goal (2009).
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Downfall in Tunisia
Mohamed Hineidi began by noting that Ennahda had become the “Islamist establishment” in Tunisia after the 2011 revolution. Ennahda failed to implement the needed reforms and its spiritual leader, Rashed Ghannouchi, was “more interested in consolidating his rule … than improving the lives of Tunisians”. Ghannouchi was even being encouraged to run for parliament and by extension the premiership himself, which might well have been the trigger for current President Kais Saied to step in and dismiss the Ennahda government in the summer of 2021.
The Brotherhood preys on social, political, and economic ills in states, Khadija Moalla noted, and with the high unemployment and other problems in Tunisia, the Brotherhood was able to employ their “welfare strategy and ideological narrative” to present themselves as the solution. All along there was strong resistance in Tunisia to some of Ennahda’s most aggressive moves, particularly against women’s rights, but after a decade, says Moalla, Tunisians saw through Ennahda and came to view it as being agents of an agenda that was “harming the national interest”.
The issue of Ennahda’s finances has become a major public issue in Tunisia, says Moalla, because this has never been made clear, and there are indications it comes from abroad. This is what is behind the recent legal cases against Ennahda, to try to get accountability for what happened during their years in power.
Moalla concluded by noting that President Saied has laid out political roadmap for the country. Ennahda is trying to rebrand itself and form a new party. Still, it is clear Ennahda is at “a moment of existential uncertainty, but the real question is whether they have anything to offer Tunisia or not … I don’t think so.”
The Roots of the Brotherhood’s Failure
Hussein Ibish said the last decade or so has been basically the story of “the rise and fall of the Brotherhood”. In the wake of the Arab rebellions, the Brotherhood had a series of remarkable advantages: they were untainted by association with the fallen rulers; they had pre-existing organizations, which almost nobody else did; though the Brotherhood never started any of the uprisings, and they were able to claim the banner of “revolution” and Al-Jazeera helped to cement this message. These were “unique, one-time competitive advantages” [emphasis added].
The Brotherhood also had the advantage in terms of international respectability by being overtly non-violent—of being distinct from the Salafi-jihadists like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State—and there was an “illusion”, from the West and the Brotherhood itself, that majorities in Muslim countries in their majorities supported Islamists.
The problem, says Ibish, is that the Brotherhood had existed on the slogan, “Islam is the solution”, but Islam does not provide a governing program, so it ended up being in effect a series of “reactionary social attitudes”, which most people did not want. This set the Brotherhood up for failure because they believed they had majority support, encouraging them into “extreme overreach when power was at hand”, triggering dramatic reactions in Egypt and Tunisia.
In power, the Brotherhood adopted a “radical majoritarian” perspective, says Ibish, believing that democracy consisted of achieving “fifty percent plus one” and then using this mandate to try to stack the bureaucracy and the courts with loyalists, excluding all other factions. This frightened not only popular majorities, but the existing state structures. Since the state institutions, like the army and the bureaucracies, did not collapse even after the rulers fell, it meant they were able to defend themselves when the Brotherhood began acting as if they had collapsed and threatening the rule of law and the old constitutional order as they saw it.
Ibish argues that the Brotherhood ended up taking up a position that saw it rejected by almost everybody: in countries like Libya and Syria where the rebellions became militarized, the Brotherhood was not radical enough to be able to mobilize violence effectively to compete with the jihadists, while in other countries where the revolutions remained peaceful the Brotherhood was too close to the jihadists, “shared too many common goals”, and issued the same toxic rhetoric that alarmed people who could see Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the Levant and did not want the same fate for their countries.
Hineidi broadly agreed with this, saying that, overall, “political parties that infuse religion with governance are not welcome” in the region these days: such parties have shown themselves “excellent in opposition, but horrible in running a country”. Hineidi warns that the decline of Islamism does not mean the Brotherhood and like-minded groups are finished; they could revive in the future. But there are signs that the younger generation that rose against autocrats in the Arab Spring have now seen what Islamists—an opposition force for decades—have to offer in governance, and they do not like it. “They can’t run a country, and they’ve proved that quite well.”
The Regional Decline of Islamism
Hineidi noted that the Islamist reaction to Ennahda’s downfall was to accuse Saied of “joining international Zionist and secular forces around the world. They made it about religion … and a clash of civilisations”. But this failed to mobilise Tunisians, who had little interest in this ideological project, being more concerned about living standards. This is a pattern all across the Middle East and North Africa, said Hineidi. Morocco is another notable case, where the local Brotherhood branch curbed its ambitions and reconciled itself to the monarchy. Even in Turkey, “basically the headquarters for the Muslim Brotherhood”, the government has “disengaged” somewhat from backing Islamists, and Qatar has likewise scaled back its support after the Gulf boycott, says Hineidi.
Ms. Moalla was more sceptical that Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood are in such steep decline—and was likewise more sceptical that Turkey has changed its ways, noting that Erdogan is still hosting Muslim Brotherhood media stations and in his rhetoric provides support to Brotherhood narratives. Nonetheless, she said it was important to bring in this regional dimension, since the Brotherhood must be understood as an international movement, rather than a local party. It means, she says, that simply removing Ennahda from power in Tunisia is not the end of it: the Brotherhood has infiltrated the country for decades, and Ennahda has a vast international support system to keep it alive during this time of trouble.
“There are three huge problems baked into the traditional Muslim Brotherhood approach that turned people off and led to failure”, says Ibish: (1) it was “revolutionary”, which made other governments in the region feel threatened; (2) they are “conspiratorial”, doing everything in secret, operating like a “criminal gang”, with shadowy finances and membership, convincing people that there is something to hide; and (3) the “killer in the Arab world, they’re transnational … a fatal floor”. Acting as a regional movement and claiming the mantle of Islam alienates people who are nationalistic; the popular demands were to make things better for specific countries, and the Brotherhood instead offered ideological slogans and regional concerns that were not important to most people’s day-to-day lives.
Geopolitical Winds Shift Against the Brotherhood
Geopolitics have compounded the damage to the Brotherhood in recent years, Hineidi explained. The anti-Islamist regional alliance—Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan, “in addition to the Abraham Accords” with Israel—has “made the Islamist camp very weak”. The thawing of relations between the UAE and Turkey, with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan turning inwards to focus on the economy, has helped reinforce this trend, Hineidi says.
The Brotherhood’s position in the Islamist universe was subject to a debate that Ibish says was represented at the one end by Qatar, which argued that allowing the Brotherhood into power gives Islamists a place to go and channels their activities peacefully, while the UAE argued that the Brotherhood was “the gateway drug … that introduces all these ideas” that leads down the road to terrorism. “The UAE’s opinion has won out”.
After a decade of power-projection by various actors, as Turkey and Qatar tried to create a regional network of Sunni Islamist clients in powerful positions in the Arab world, which did not work, all are overextended and the trend is towards de-escalation, says Ibish. And “Turkey, the most powerful state on paper, is the most over-extended”: it quarrelled with everyone—except Qatar, Azerbaijan, Northern Cyprus, and HAMAS, “a small list of marginal players”.
The region is now undergoing “consolidation, retrenchment, and manoeuvre”, says Ibish: consolidating the cost-effective gains they made over the last decade; retrenching at home to rebuild militarily and otherwise; and manoeuvring through “diplomacy, politics, and commerce” to achieve their aims. There are notable exceptions like Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen—both proxies of the Iranian government, which shows no signs of turning away from violence as a means to advance its Islamic Revolution.
A key way that the region has got to this more stable position is the “defanging” of Al-Jazeera because of the Arab boycott of Qatar, says Ibish. A channel once had a populist appeal in the region with its pan-Arabist and Islamist rhetoric has now been “recast as Qatari propaganda, as the mouthpiece of Doha”. Al-Jazeera gained “street cred” through the 1990s and the Arab Spring, but now it is “greatly reduced, to the point of just being another station” and this is “very, very important for understanding the crisis of the Brotherhood”, leaving the Brotherhood and Turkey and Qatar “very little to work with”.
“Can [the Brotherhood] come back? Of course they can”, says Ibish. “Their best asset right now is overreach” by anti-Islamist forces. Tunisia’s interim authorities risk doing this if the democratic process is not completed within a reasonable time frame, says Ibish. Picking up on a point Moalla made about the Brotherhood taking advantage of real grievances, Ibish noted these are endemic in the Arab world—but if the Brotherhood comes back in some form, it would have to have better answers and answers so different that it would mean the Brotherhood was a different creature. A mark of the extent to which using religion as a source of state legitimation is being rejected in the region, said Ibish, is Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is being decoupled from the monarchy. If the Brotherhood fails to pick up this signal, its decline could be terminal.
In the question and answer period, the panellists looked at the impact the Brotherhood’s decline in the region would have on Muslim populations in Europe; whether the decline of the Brotherhood is an opportunity or a problem for the jihadist movement; and if it is possible for the Brotherhood to adopt more secular, material themes in their discourse to appeal to a broader base.