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Sunday, 01 October 2017 14:41

Alison Pargeter, Return to the Shadows: The Muslim Brotherhood and An-Nahda since the Arab Spring, Saqi Books, 2016

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A lot of ink has been spilt on the role of political Islam in post-Arab Spring politics. In the beginning, there was an assumption of an almost teleological nature whereby the democratic renaissance of the region would at a minimum bring the forces of political Islam to the fore. There was even the potential for it to be rendered the single most important socio-political actor in part of the region. While the first premise has certainly proved true, Alison Pargeter’s book is a detailed, eloquent attempt at explaining the second: political Islam’s inability to ensconce itself in power, once in its antechamber.

The author is a well-regarded North Africa analyst who has previously written books on Qaddafi’s Libya and the Muslim Brotherhood. She is thus on very familiar territory writing on the main forces speaking in political Islam’s name. The book is a thorough, even exhaustive, account of the movement’s intricacies. Based on a great number of interviews and travels, it aims to interweave solid academic knowledge with the cognitive flexibility of the wandering journalist. The author reads in both French and Arabic, which helps widen the range of sources and utilize as many angles as possible. She also seems to have enjoyed easy access to a large number of high-ranking officials, which lends credence to her arguments. The book, it should be noted, presupposes a certain degree of familiarity with the countries’ recent political history, as it limits its purview to the trials and tribulations of political Islam.

Pargeter picks Egypt, Libya and Tunisia as case studies, as the Arab spring brought regime change in all. Coincidentally, the three countries are also highly important, each for its own reasons: Egypt as arguably the Arab world’s most pivotal state and always a barometer of regional developments, Libya as the site of a post-strongman cosmogony and Tunisia as a society of diverse forces which, in terms of Arab spring paradigm change, is considered a relative success story. As she makes clear, the Muslim Brotherhood and An-Nahda all faced similar predicaments on the eve of rebellion. They also shared similar ideological orientations and a background of state oppressions. Yet, despite all their similarities, “once the democratic space opened up, they responded very differently.” The author is explicit in her rejection of reductive theories.

The book’s main strength lies not in the originality of its main argument –political Islam’s resounding failure, common knowledge by now- but in its thorough and incisive dissection of how this failure came about. A common theme is that, having learned to operate in the shadows, the forces of political Islam failed to transform into ordinary political parties, once in the limelight. In addition, prior emphasis on the apolitical, gradual enlightenment of the individual according to the faith’s teachings failed to transmogrify into a tangible political agenda, not least because of the pressing issues these parties were faced with. Naivety and a fundamental lack of vision in dealing with those issues were “at the root of their downfall”.

Interestingly enough, the Brotherhood and An-Nahda’s prior emphasis to the reformation of the individual, combined with their lack of political experience, did not take them down the path of introversion; by contrast, once in power their foreign policy revolved around making themselves likeable to Western powers -and this is even more striking when considering that anti-Westernism had always been “the mainstay of their rhetoric”. To a great extent this was self-serving; the Libyan Brotherhood was initially hesitant towards the popular uprising against Qadhafi and hoped something “could be worked out” with him. But it welcomed NATO’s operations against Libya’s strongman when toppling him looked like a walk in the park.

Currying favour with the West becomes even more puzzling when one reads about the attempts at establishing democracies with local characteristics. Throughout the years of the Arab Spring, there have been calls for Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian political systems that are democratic but also highly mindful of local tradition and religion.  Unsurprisingly, these have not been elaborated upon. The keen reader might be tempted to regard these attempts as devices to cover sociopolitical deficiencies; for most, democracy is a uniform notion whose successful application depends precisely on universal standards that escape attempts of flexible, localised adaptation. Calling for local versions of democracy -supposedly out of respect for one’s traditions- smacks of a dubious eagerness to avoid judgement according to universal yardsticks.

Finally, the author does well to emphasize the element of interconnection; as in every region but even more so in the Islamic world, countries tend to influence and be influenced greatly by each other. As clearly shown, no branch of the Brotherhood acted independently of its brethren and the author does a good job of demonstrating how.

For all their shortcomings, the Muslim Brotherhood and An-Nahda have emerged as paramount actors in North African politics and will continue to be “a major feature of the region”. It is their ability to attune to needs on the ground that will decide the contours of the new Middle East, which, for the moment, remains not too dissimilar to the old.


For our interview with the author follow this link Alison Pargeter, Return to the Shadows: The Muslim Brotherhood and An-Nahda since the Arab Spring (Saqi Books, 2016).

Charalampos Tsitsopoulos