North African Islamism, Past and Present

Ranging yet again outside my normal area of coverage, I was moved to write a quick post because of an Al Jazeera English segment I saw last night about recent Islamist electoral victories in Morocco and Tunisia and the potential upcoming Islamist victories in Egypt.

My thought was one I’ve had before, and one I’m sure others have pointed out, but it’s worth saying again: the political scene in North Africa now is in some ways (though obviously not all!) a remix of the aborted political transitions of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Islamist political mobilizations of that time were blocked by incumbent regimes (and by the West) at high cost, especially in the case of Algeria, where the military’s intervention to forestall an Islamist electoral triumph helped launch years of brutal civil war. I can’t predict the future and I do not have special insight into what North African Islamists will do with power, but I do think that a) the decision to block Islamists from elected office circa 1991 was a mistake and b) political groups who participate in elections have the right to be judged on what they do after they win, instead of being pre-judged for what they might do if they win.

All this reminds me of the fabulous edited volume Islam, Democracy, and the State in North Africa, which was published in 1997 but is still relevant in my view. My favorite chapter is Dr. Mark Tessler’s “The Origins of Popular Support for Islamist Movements A Political Economy Analysis.” Tessler gives real insight into why young Algerians – including people who were not as religiously pious as one might expect – were drawn to Islamist politics. Highly recommended for those who haven’t read it, and worth reflecting on at this particular moment in the region’s political trajectory.

Also for what it’s worth I think Libya, then as now, is moving to a different rhythm than the rest of the region.

One thought on “North African Islamism, Past and Present

  1. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for your great insight into the region. Why do you think that Libya is moving to a different rhythm than the other countries of the region? Libya also had history of supressing Islamic political groups and now we see the rise of these groups in the post-Gaddafi stage. What in your opinion makes Libya different?

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