Islamism in North Africa I- The Legacies of History

20 Apr 2004

16pages PDF

This general backgrounder is the first of a series of ICG briefings addressing the range and diversity of Islamic activism in the North African states where this phenomenon has been able to develop most fully ? Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. Each subsequent paper examines with respect to one of these three countries the outlook and strategies of the main Islamist movements and organisations, their relations with the state and with each other, and especially the ways in which they have evolved in recent years. The analysis focuses on the relationship between Islamist activism and violence, especially but not only terrorism, and the problem of political reform in general and democratisation in particular. OVERVIEW Islamism, terrorism, reform: the triangle formed by these three concepts and the complex and changeable realities to which they refer is at the centre of political debate in and about North Africa today. The role of Egyptian elements in the leadership of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation is well-known, if not necessarily well understood. The involvement of Maghrebis in terrorist networks in Europe -- whether linked to al-Qaeda or not -- has recently been underlined by the suspected involvement of Moroccans in the 11 March 2004 attack in Madrid. Egypt itself has endured years of terrorist violence; few if any countries have suffered as much from terrorism as Algeria has over the last twelve years; and the bombings in Casablanca on 16 May 2003 suggest that Morocco is not immune. At the same time, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco have all been sites of important attempts at pluralist political reform. Morocco's political system has exhibited a measure of party-political pluralism since the early years of independence. Egypt experienced political pluralism before 1952, and under both Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak a degree of pluralism has been allowed at some periods only to be stifled at others. In Algeria, formal party pluralism was introduced in 1989 and has survived although it has fallen far short of substantive democracy. Yet, debate over these issues has become bogged down in a welter of fixed but erroneous ideas. One is the notion that posits a simple chain of cause and effect: absence of political reform generates Islamism which in turn generates terrorism. This simplistic analysis ignores the considerable diversity within contemporary Islamic activism, the greater part of which has been consistently non-violent. It also overlooks the fact that the rise of Islamist movements in North Africa has not been predicated on the absence of reform, but has generally occurred in conjunction with ambitious government reform projects. The expansion of Islamic political activism in Egypt occurred in the context of President Sadat's audacious economic and political opening -- infitah -- in the 1970s; the spectacular rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) in Algeria in 1989-1991 occurred in the context of the government's liberalisation of the political system and its pursuit of radical economic reform. The problem of reform, therefore, has not been its absence so much as the particular character of the reform projects that have been adopted by North African governments, the political alliances and manoeuvres in which they have engaged in the process, and their complex, unforeseen and sometimes disastrous consequences. The problem of Islamism has not been its doctrinal outlook -- this has been varied and variable -- so much as the difficulty the Egyptian, Algerian and Moroccan states have had in accommodating the more dynamic forms of non-violent activism and, in particular, their inability to integrate a major Islamic movement into the formal political system. Egypt has refused to legalise the Muslim Brothers. Algeria, having legalised the FIS and allowed it to contest and win two elections, then decided it could not cope with the consequences and took the fateful decision to dissolve