Experts and researchers examine the implications of the Return of the Taliban and the Crisis of Political Islam in the Arab World

Amman — A panel of experts and researchers specializing in international relations, terrorism, and political Islam discussed the possible consequences and implications of the Taliban’s return to power after 20 years of military action against the Afghan regime. 

The experts also discussed U.S. military and political support in exchange for the announcement of Tunisian President Qais Said’s decision to freeze parliamentary life, which led to the end (so far) of the Islamic Renaissance movement in Tunisia. The panel also discussed the fiasco of Islamists in the recent parliamentary elections in Morocco, who obtained only 13 seats, losing control of Parliament after they have held control for nearly ten years.

The researchers asked vital questions: What is the significance of these events? How do you understand the contexts around it? Then are there links between them? What results, repercussions, and implications may have reached the Arab street from what happened?

The researchers agreed that there is a structural crisis going through the movements of political Islam in the Arab world today, especially a decade after the Arab Spring, resulting from failure in political power and failure to achieve significant achievements, whether in the Egyptian, Moroccan, or Tunisian experience. Until recently, those countries were seen ras a model for successful pragmatic political Islam in the Arab world, compared to the failure of the Levantine experience.

Experts say that there are real questions on the fate of political Islam today, after some Islamic movements reached an advanced stage of abandoning their ideals from previous decades, but after penetrating politics and reaching power, they could not offer anything new to the masses. 

The situation in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia shows that the promises that the Arab street had hoped for are far from attainable, and rather many felt the Islamic movements had become duplicate of other political parties and elites that came to power before them. They are neither able to go back to the stage of flashy slogans and simple and easy identity discourse that mobilizes the masses, and they are unable to come up with qualitative solutions that convince the masses they have the ability to institute change. 

The researchers felt that these Islamic movements and parties, whether they failed to provide realistic solutions in government or failed because of local or international collusion against them, now have two options. They can return to the traditional revivalist identity discourse, while others will double down on the realism and pragmatism and pursue a larger path, even if they lose the popular base they gained during the opposition and when they rose to power. 

However, there is a consensus among the researchers that what happened in Tunisia and Morocco is still beneficial, in some aspects and angles, to the experiences of Arab democratic transition because they prove the magnitude of the exaggerated intimidation and intimidation practiced by Arab regimes during the previous decades against the “Islamic bogeyman,” as it has been proven that Islamists may succeed in gaining power through democratic elections. 

The concerns associated with al-Qaeda raised by some “one-time vote” in resolving the arrival of Islamists are not accurate, in most cases, that Islamists who lost power will turn into realistic programmatic political parties, and will abandon the former religious ideological aura they have employed for popular mobilization. We will find that mutual fears between Islamists and secularists will dissipate.

In contrast to this somewhat optimistic vision, another vision emerged in the researchers’ debates, fearing that the failure of democratic political Islam would lead to a similar vacuum in the “religious right” in the street, which jihadist, conservative, and less pragmatic movements would seek to fill, and try to recruit young people and attract them towards jihadist action and armed combat as the only possible option to save Arab societies from the situation they have reached. They position themselves an alternative choice to democratic Islamists, who have failed to reach the realization of the demands and objectives of Arab and Muslim societies.

At this point, what the Taliban have achieved militarily intersects with what happened with the Islamists in Morocco and Tunisia, as the conclusion of enthusiastic Islamist youth may be that making pragmatic and political concessions and sticking to realistic choices has not led to good results. 
Rather, this has led to heavy losses to the Islamist movements, so the natural alternative is what happened with armed experiments. ISIS managed to control a wide area of territory for a short period of time, and the Taliban managed to withstand the military and seize power after two decades of harsh confrontation with the international coalition.

Radical Islamic movements (who engage in democratic action) are the best investors in the crisis of political Islam, as their discourse shifts to criticism of pragmatism, describing it as complacency, inaction, and distortion of Islam. These movements address the emotions of the enthusiastic youth base and the conservative grassroots, which may not be satisfied with the concessions made by Islamists in power in an attempt to harmonize with democratic conditions and requirements.

This reinvorces the convictions of a large proportion of young Islamists with fragile economic, social, and political conditions in many Arab countries, particularly with the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, with high unemployment and poverty rates, and the inability of political systems to consolidate democratic mechanisms, traditions and development projects. This brings a wider social segment closer to anger, frustration and indignation over the current situation, in which radical movements are also investing, with a blatantly simplistic discourse calling for the explulsion of existing regimes in favor of radical changes.

Tunisia reproduces the Egyptian experience or corrects the course? 

Returning to what has happened in Tunisia since the Arab Spring in 2011, researchers differ in describing and defining what happened. Some agree with President Ben Said’s decisions as a correction of the democratic path and saving the country, who refuse to drop what happened in Egypt on that experience, and who sees this as a coup d’état and a departure from the extraordinary Tunisian path away from the deteriorating Arab contexts.

Some researchers believed that the civil democratic forces played a significant role in managing the political scene in Tunisia and countered any attempts that almost led to bloody internal explosions inside the country. These parties are still active and present in the Tunisian scene despite their recently limited influence in the public sphere.

There was an essential role for the civil forces, led by the Tunisian Labour Union, which took a clear position on what happened (participatory or dictatorship), which put President Said in trouble.

Participants felt that the governments that took power after Ben Ali did not bring an alternative social and economic system to open the way to transformations with political and popular carries available, despite the presence of civil actors.

Between Morocco and Afghanistan: Militarization and Democracy   

Close to Tunisia, the experience of political Islam in Morocco represented by the Moroccan Justice and Development Party was no better. The party lost its popularity and fell in the last legislative elections resoundingly. Despite the passage of 10 years since the changing political scene in Morocco, the collapse of popularity and loss in the election, according to experts, was due to multiple reasons.
Some saw that the party lacked economic and social programs in achieving justice and equality and some pointed to the significant concessions made by the Moroccan Prime Minister (Saadeddine Othmani) to host Israeli symbols and complete normalization agreements with Israel in exchange for an American recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara and numerous statements against neighboring countries Algeria and Tunisia.  

As for Afghanistan, the Taliban has imposed and established the status quo, despite its prior control over Afghanistan in the pre-September 2001 period (1996-2001). Its dedication to the (repressive) rule of public freedoms and its establishment as a  incubator for al-Qaeda, which has been classified as a terrorist and has been in a fierce war with U.S. and international forces for two decades. Afghanistan has regained its momentum and strength and returned to the scene strongly, providing guarantees to the United States and the international community to stabilize internally, protect Western interests in Afghanistan and not allow to attack the United States and its allies from Afghan territory, so the movement has traded power for reassuring foreign political positions.

U.S. Position

There have been no clear reactions from the United States and the West about what happened recently in Tunisia, and there is no tough defense of the democratic values that the United States sings about, even though Ennahda in Tunisia has integrated into authoritarian politics and entered the democratic political game. On the other hand, the United States has recognized the Taliban’s control of Afghan territory, despite being on the terrorism list and engaging in a long war against the United States for two decades. This is a dangerous message that many movements may pick up on and make clear that democracy is meaningless in U.S. foreign policy, and engaging in the political process peacefully is useless. On the contrary, armed movements (even if classified as terrorists) will gain U.S. and world recognition if they impose themselves by force of arms.

Future reading

The researchers came up with a set of individual conclusions at the end of the research episode, the most prominent of which can be summarized as follows:

  1. It is clear that there is a rise in the level of awareness of people and especially the youth of political parties and what they apply on the ground. The main concern for a broad social segment has become what governments can provide in terms of services and solutions to the significant problems they suffer, reducing the influence of ideologies and prominent rhetoric that were quickly moving the masses and gaining the support of sympathizers at the polls.
  2. Recent developments in Tunisia and Morocco have revealed and even reinforced the conviction that the deep state in the Arab world overcame the rest of the authorities and became the one holding on to power, even if Islamists or others are in power, there are more substantial, more rooted authoritarian structures at play.
  3. There is no alternative to the democratic option. Democratic construction is a strategic choice, and Islamists must align with other currents for community empowerment in the coming stages.
  4.  Countries cannot rely on the U.S. Role in the region, and the U.S. is now prioritizing international competition with China and Russia.
  5. Nation-building must be on objective grounds to integrate different political currents to achieve development and reduce violence, especially among young people.

Participants in the research workshop

Rasha Ayen – Executive Director of the Institute for Politics and Society
Abla Abu Alabda: Secretary-General of the People’s Party Democratic Jordanian – former deputy.
Hossam Al-Ghareiba: Jordanian Media – “Your voice is free” program presenter – Hosni Radio.
Hassan Abu Haniyeh: Jordanian writer who is an expert on Islamic movements.         
Hussein Al-Rawashda: Jordanian Political Writer.
Obada Ali: Political activist and doctor at The Founding King Hospital Abd Alه University.
Dr. Zeid Al-Nawaisa: Political Analyst Jordanian.
Dr. Badr Madi: Professor of Political Science at the German-Jordanian University.
Dr. Mohammed Aburman: Researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan
Dr. Khaled Salim Ph.D.: researcher in politics and prevention, an expert in evaluating and developing institutions.
Ahmed Al-Qudah: Director of Information and Communication at the Institute for Politics and Society.

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