AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Two potent forces - the rise of militant Islam and the resurgence of nationalism - have attracted attention to North Africa, the site of "some of the most active and powerful fundamentalist Muslim movements."(1) These forces have risen all over the region and have become a serious threat to existing political institutions. The proponents' core argument is both religious and cultural. They blame secular governments for allowing Western culture to penetrate Muslim societies and undermine Islamic values and traditions. They are especially critical of "imported books, magazines, videos and films that they believe undermine indigenous morality." They view Islam "as a defense against the encroachments of Western decay"(2) and as a means for political empowerment.
Islam has thus become part of the dynamics of political opposition to the status quo. The militants fault governments for failing to resolve national problems that in their view are caused by the use of alien ideologies and economic models. They insist that "Islam is the solution"(3) for all domestic problems and have shown readiness to use ballots or bullets to force change and to establish true Islamic states in Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia.
Islamic activists have been encouraged in their push for political reforms by the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe and Russia in 1989-1990 following the demise of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have sought to galvanize public opinion and to organize mass support to pressure North African governments for greater liberalization and democratization. Their task has been facilitated by popular discontent amid political failure, economic hardship, and social turmoil. High inflation and rising unemployment coupled with shortages in housing and commodities have adversely affected the quality of life in these countries and have made the working and middle classes susceptible to radical messages.
Governments in North Africa have increasingly come under pressure to liberalize political institutions and to tackle economic problems. Their failure to do so has led to sharp increases in the followers of the illegal opposition, especially militant Islamic groups, whose membership has included former volunteers who had been trained by the United States to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Having gained combat experience, many of the Afghan veterans returned home and launched a subversive campaign in Algeria and Egypt to topple the secular governments and establish strict Islamic states. These groups have used the most advanced telecommunications techniques to publicize their cause, to communicate with foreign media, and to warn foreigners to stay away from Egypt and to quit Algeria. They are also in touch with other radical Muslims who live in exile in Sudan following the military coup in Khartoum in June 1989. Lieutenant General Umar Hassan Ah-med al-Bashir promised in December 1990 to make the sharia (Islamic law) the law of the land in Sudan(4) and has allowed Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of the National Islamic Front, to influence the country's policy. This development has caused concern and anxiety in the political circles of North Africa. Neighboring states have accused Sudan of harboring Islamic extremists and training outlawed groups to undermine secular governments and to install Islamic regimes throughout the region.(5)
Several Islamic revivalist movements have emerged in North Africa since the late 1970s. They are not religious but secular movements with political agendas advocating religious solutions to societal problems. They operate in urban areas and have wide appeal among university students, educated professionals, and members of traditional occupations.(6) Some groups are willing to participate in electoral politics, that is, to work within the existing system to push for reforms and to gain power through ballots. However, others have resorted to violence when they have been denied the rights to form political parties and to compete in local and national elections.
This article examines the resurgence of Islam in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria. In all three countries, Islam is being used as a platform for political empowerment and as a rallying point to mobilize the masses against the governments and to support the drive to establish strict Islamic states. Major issues are analyzed in each country in order to understand the nature of the conflict and to assess its impact.
Lacking the charisma and popular appeal of Gamal Abdel Nasser, President Anwar Sadat used Islam to legitimize his leadership and shore up public support for his regime. He appeared as a pious Muslim leader and made Islam the official religion of the state and the sharia one of the sources of legislation in the 1971 constitution.(7) He encouraged political activism among Islamic groups, especially the al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood), which had been suppressed by his predecessor, to counter the influence of the Nasserites and leftists who posed a threat to his regime and opposed his reversal of Nasser's domestic and foreign policies. He sought Islamist support to dismantle Nasser's socialism in favor of al-infitah (open-door economic policy) and to do away with the one-party system in favor of a multiparty system.
However, the signing of a disengagement agreement with Israel upset the government's delicate relationship with Muslim groups and resulted in an attack by the Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islamia (Islamic Liberation Party) on the Technical Military Academy in a suburb of Cairo in April 1974. In response, Sadat decided to suppress the militant groups that threatened his government. He moved against the Jamaat al-Takfir wal-Hijrah (Excommunication and Emigration), which was accused of kidnapping and murdering the former minister of waqf, Shaikh Husayn al-Dhahabi, in July 1977.(8) Still, Sadat continued to court the moderate Muslim Brotherhood in an attempt to neutralize the radical religious opposition and to use the group against the Nasserites. He permitted the Brotherhood to publish two monthly journals - al-Da'wah and al-I'tisam.(9) Although he allowed opposition parties to participate in the 1976 elections, he insisted on keeping religion separate from politics. As a result, religious organizations were prohibited from forming political parties or functioning as political opposition.
By the late 1970s it had become increasingly difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood to continue its support of Sadat. It joined other groups in criticizing Sadat for (1) failing to implement the sharia and opening the country to Western culture and influence; (2) not supporting Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in Iran but giving asylum to the Shah; and (3) establishing peace with Israel (through the Camp David Accords) and close ties with the United States.
Sadat responded to this criticism by getting a plebiscite approved in March 1980 making the sharia the main source of legislation.(10) He banned from campuses the al-Jamaat al-Islamiyyah (Islamic Groups), which had dominated student union elections in recent years. He also tried to bring under state control the 40,000 privately owned mosques, which were highly critical of his domestic and foreign policies and often used Friday sermons to incite the masses against the government. This action meant that the mosques' Imams would have to register with the state and their sermons would require clearance from the Al-Azhar or Ministry of Waqf.(11)
These developments only led to further polarization, however. In response, the most radical Islamists formed underground groups such as Shabab Muhammad (Muhammad's Youth), the Jamaat al-Jihad (Holy War Society), the Jamaat al-Muslimin (Society of Muslims), and Jund Allah (Soldiers of God), all of which were dedicated to overthrowing Sadat by force.(12) In a further attempt to thwart their efforts, Sadat moved to curb fundamentalist activities and silence militant opposition altogether. The Muslim Brotherhood's journal al-Da'wah was banned, and members of its editoral staff were arrested. Between 1,500 and 3,000 Islamic and secular leaders were imprisoned in September 1981, and more activists were threatened with arrest if they continued their opposition.(13) These efforts had a tragic …