What’s to be done with Islamists? Should they be assimilated into the phony multipartism of closed regimes? Included in processes of political liberalization? Democratized by force — bombed into democratizing? Killed? For more than two decades, the question has been a torment. First for Arab elites, then for Muslim elites and then, after Sept. 11, 2001, for the whole world.
The radical approach — violence — doesn’t accomplish much except to further radicalize the radicals. Slaughtering a jihadist only confirms his methods while reinforcing his ideology of victimhood and turning him into a martyr. The West becomes the enemy, and so do its democracy and its rules. By reaction, Islamism becomes the “solution” — which is, incidentally, the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Islamism’s vision of the world becomes justified. Its propaganda becomes truth, backed up by photographs showing the dead victims of the West’s Crusades.
To kill a jihadist is to turn a bug in a democracy into a clash of civilizations. It is to make him eternal. It is to bless his curses. The policies of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt illustrate how this choice leads to an impasse: Repression serves as validation for more radicalization, encouraging the recruitment of new jihadists and so a repetition of the cycle of confrontation.
There is another approach, which is to eliminate the most radical Islamists and assimilate the moderate ones. In Algeria, which was battered during the 1990s by a war between an authoritarian military regime and radical jihadists, the current (and eternal) president calls this “the politics of reconciliation.” The idea is simple: Drain the pools from which the most violent elements are recruited, while offering the others another way — with judicial amnesties or by tolerating Islamist political parties that are “soft,” that is, controlled and limited in their actions.
The concept is worthy, but its translation into reality is corrupt. “Reconciliation” often turns into a deal between a hard-nosed regime and Islamists, and together they immobilize society by obstructing the progressive elites’ demands for democratization. The regime manages any rents stemming from oil resources or a strategic position, and the Islamists manage the street, public space, society and morals. This arrangement tends to turn citizens into believers, into religious persons more concerned with their faith and its practice than with, say, the revival of the economy, judicial independence or free elections. In Algeria, as elsewhere, protest marches against a law authorizing the use of alcohol or against a film deemed immoral are customary, whereas demonstrations against corruption or mismanagement are extremely rare.
In the face of Islamists, democracy is often foiled by the cunning of dictatorships. Such was Algeria’s experience in the 1990s, though that remained invisible because the Internet didn’t exist then. This is what is happening today in Egypt, which is trapped in a cycle of confrontation between Islamists and the military, with democrats largely sidelined. When the Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany said of former President Mohamed Morsi that “he used democracy like a stepping-stone on the way to installing an Islamist regime,” he captured at once the anxiety of democracy and the pain of dictatorship. The tragic choice offered to progressive elites is to either submit to theocracy or implore the military for protection.
It will have taken the case of Tunisia, home of the 2010-2011 protests that inspired other uprisings in many Arab countries, to suggest the possibility of a third way: a consensus, however fragile, between Islamist elites and progressive elites. Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda Movement, the Islamist party that won the 2011 elections after the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, eventually yielded to pressure — from unions, from centrists, from nationalists, from progressives — and in the name of the national interest embraced a policy of dialogue. In an interview with a French newspaper, Mr. Ghannouchi explained why he broke with the hard-line tradition of Islamists in the Muslim world: “What good is staying in a house that’s collapsing on top of you?” The admission came just a few months after Mr. Morsi’s overthrow in Egypt.
In 2014 Ennahda voluntarily stepped down from power, and in its place emerged a government based on an innovative formula: an elite consensus that trumped the electoral majority. This was heresy in democratic terms, but also a valid way of securing stability and warding off violence. And it is what the Nobel committee apparently wanted to reward by granting its prestigious Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which had led the initiative.
A Tunisian way, an Arab possibility, a global solution? To be considered with caution. For this option to be available a country needs a weak regime, dictatorship defeated, and Islamists who aren’t too radical, or who at least are patient in their ambition for world domination. There are other conditions, too: a strong middle class (to act as neutral broker between opposing partisan currents, with interests of its own to defend); no oil (because oil revenues allow governments to do without taxes and, in the long run, without accountability to their citizens); little foreign funding (dependence can mean cooptation, as with Syria, by Russia and Iran); lack of stark ethnic or sectarian tensions (unlike in Iraq or Yemen); and not too strong an army (unlike in Egypt and Algeria).
There are so many caveats that a repeat of the Tunisian example is very unlikely. If the Nobel Peace Prize put a magnifying glass to a question that concerns the whole world — what is to be done with Islamists? — it said little about the chances of a generalizable solution. Tunisia is less a model than a unique case.
Kamel Daoud, a columnist for Quotidien d’Oran, is the author of The Meursault Investigation. This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.