When Arab dictatorships fell in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the conventional wisdom – particularly in the West – held that because most Arabs are devout Muslims, once they were given a chance to freely choose their leaders, power would rapidly be gained by Islamist parties. This facile expectation was always built on terribly weak assumptions. And given the current condition of Islamist parties in North Africa, it’s fair to call it thoroughly debunked.
That urgently raises the question of, what, exactly, informs the forces that have rallied to thwart or defeat the Islamists, particularly in North Africa? The answer is simultaneously blindingly obvious and bizarrely mysterious, as so few have been able to identify it: nationalism.
The most solid ground for expecting Islamists to quickly rise to power in post-dictatorship Arab societies was the real competitive advantage they enjoyed over all other groups not associated with the former regimes. They had an established brand and ideology. They had a history, and were not tainted by association with the former regimes. They had social service and political networks, and strong ground-game structures. And they had a regional network.
It was assumed that none of their opponents had any of these advantages and that Islamists would therefore be virtually invincible, at least during the initial phases after the opening of political space. None of these claims were false. Yet they did not add up, as expected, into a wave of solid, popular Islamist governments in the place of former dictatorships. Why not?
First, while it’s true that Islamist parties enjoyed these competitive advantages against most of their potential rivals, they were at their apex on the first day after regime change. Over an astonishingly short period of time, two crucial things changed this. In some places, such as Tunisia, non-Islamist parties have been rapidly gaining ground and consolidating. But more importantly, Islamists were quickly revealed to have no real policies for dealing with the most important concerns of the general public, particularly jobs, economic growth and security.
Second, in some cases the advantage was either greatly exaggerated or extremely fleeting. In Libya, Islamists have, from the outset of the new system, suffered a continuous series of defeats. In Tunisia, Islamists won a plurality that forced them to compromise and form a coalition government. But it has now resigned under massive pressure. In Egypt, Islamists were most successful, but their abusive and arbitrary style of rule and outrageous behaviour in government quickly led to their ouster to great public acclaim.
Even the most diehard supporters of the “Islamic awakening” narrative have finally had to admit that a massive “countertrend” is sweeping the region. But it’s not enough to observe that Islamists have confronted more popular non-Islamist social forces that have defeated them across the board. It is crucial to identify the primary animating and defining sentiment that has led to this defeat, and what unifies and legitimates the “non-Islamist” victorious forces.
What the Islamists have confronted, in fact, is nationalism. In every case in which they have suffered defeat, it is a nationalist discourse that has turned the public against them. From the Libyan parliamentary elections to the ouster of the Brotherhood in Egypt, and, even the resignation of Ennahda in Tunisia, social and political forces that confronted the Islamists by questioning their nationalist sentiments and credentials have prevailed.
What many in the West have, even now, not understood is that nationalism – not the pan-Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s, but state-specific nationalism of North African countries, for example – is still the most potent political sentiment in most of the Arab world. And this is the Achilles heel of Islamists, since the bases for questioning their nationalist sentiments are extensive: they place religion before country, their regional allies before the national interest, and a broader agenda above their own society’s immediate needs. And these are typically not false accusations.
The hyper-nationalism, bordering on chauvinism, that has taken hold in Egypt is a prime example of this phenomenon. And it is a reaction to the real and perceived way in which Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood clearly placed other values ahead of specifically Egyptian national interests. Egypt is now torn between the large majority who still identify the country according to its traditional, national self-image versus those who see it as just another Muslim society in need of greater piety in the public sphere.
In the splintering Arab states of the Levant and Iraq, nationalism clearly never trumped sectarian and ethnic subnational identities. But in many Arab states, including in North Africa, nationalism remains potent enough that it is the positive, dynamic and specific content that actually informs what is frequently referred to in the negative as non- or anti-Islamism.
These popular majorities are not just sceptical about Islamists. Much more to the point, they are deeply patriotic. And, in many cases, they have concluded, with every justification, that Islamists are at least insufficiently loyal to the country, if not downright subversive.
So it’s not the “deep state”, the “old order” or some foreign-driven “counter-revolution” that is keeping or driving the Islamists from power where many assumed they would naturally inherit it. Instead, it’s a very familiar, real and enduring sentiment – good old-fashioned Arab nationalism – which has proven to be the brick wall Islamism has crashed into headlong.
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a columnist for Now Media and blogs at www.ibishblog.com
On Twitter: @ibishblog