By Raby Ould Idoumou
As Islamists celebrate their post-Arab Spring electoral wins and others in the Maghreb wonder what the political change means for their hard-fought civil liberties, figures from opposing sides faced off for an internet argument.
Mohamed Ghoulam Ould El Hadj Cheikh, the vice-chairman of Mauritania’s National Rally for Reform and Development Party (Tawassoul), published an editorial on January 31st in which he celebrated the Islamists’ wins in Tunisia and Morocco and lambasted the losers. The piece appeared in Essirage under the title “The Terrified”.
The next day, in a point-by-point rebuttal published by liberal Mauritanian website Taqadoumy, leftist writer and university professor Abul Abbas Ould Borham deconstructed El Hadj’s argument, highlighted his duplicity and made it clear that not only were the secularists unafraid, they had reason to be optimistic about the future.
Tawassoul’s El Hadj launched the first salvo.
In an aggressive attack on secularists, the Islamist politician accused them of reacting to the Arab Spring with a “spirit of arrogance”.
“They have been deceived by the fact that they controlled the fate of our nations for a long period of time,” El Hadj writes.
He suggests that the secularists are sore losers who bemoan the recent Maghreb elections as an aberration.
“When you hear them talk, you would think that an army of jinnis and demons have attacked cities, villages and rural areas, taking ballot boxes from polling stations, and filling them with votes from another planet,” El Hadj writes.
Abul Abbas Ould Borham, however, rejects El Hadj’s intimation that the secularists’ response to the elections was marked by anger and resentment. He maintains that rather than rejecting the elections, “the secular elites accepted the Islamists’ victories and handed power over power to them in Tunisia and Morocco”.
“This democratic picture is more meaningful and important,” he says, than what El Hadj did: “criticised the words of the ‘ultra-secularists’.”
More importantly, Ould Borham argues, “the thing that the Islamist writer refers to as a ‘spirit of arrogance’ is not about rejecting the ballot, but is rather about how the Islamists regard any criticism of their victory”.
The professor continues: “Islamic elites must understand that democracy doesn’t mean that the winner won’t be criticised. The demagogical picture that says ‘leave them alone, since they won’ is not correct. It’s more correct to say, ‘criticise them democratically’.”
Criticising the winners “is an inherent part of the democratic practice”, he argues. “Otherwise how can anyone work in any democratic opposition?”
He then zeroes in on what he perceives as the Islamist’s double-speak: “The Islamist writer leads a party that recognises the democracy of the Mauritanian regime, but he doesn’t stop criticising it.”
“Therefore, it’s strange that he now criticises ‘ultra-secularists’ for criticising the Islamists,” Ould Borham notes.
The two writers also spar over famed Egyptian writer and activist Farag Foda, an outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism.
El Hadj writes: “Arab secularists…considered Farag Foda a respectable intellectual, although he took pride in being the first one to stand against the application of Islamic Sharia in Egypt.”
In his rebuttal published the next day, Ould Borham asks El Hadj, “Does the writer want to say that the Islamist movements will confiscate the literature that they don’t respect?”
El Hadj’s derision of the late Egyptian thinker provides another opportunity for Ould Borham to identify his intellectual opponent’s inconsistency: “The thing that Mr Ghoulam doesn’t respect Farag Foda for, namely his rejection of the application of Islamic Sharia, is the same position that has been adopted by Islamist movements in both Tunisia and Morocco.”
Again he targets the contradictions inherent to El Hadj’s argument, pointing out that “in this, they are not different from Farag Foda”.
Mauritanian professor Abul Abbas Ould Borham in early February responded online to an Islamist politician’s editorial diatribe against secularists.
“I think that a leading Islamist figure at the crossroads of Islamist movements shouldn’t cast doubts on confirmations made by Islamist movements about respecting freedom of expression; otherwise, his assurances about his movement’s democracy would be meaningless,” Ould Borham adds.
In another critique of possible misinformation in the Islamist’s editorial, the leftist writer says that El Hadj’s piece “may lead readers to believe that Islamic parties in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt will get rid of regular interest-based banks”.
“The assurances of those parties contradict the writer’s suppositions, and even confirm their adherence to the existing market system,” Ould Borham writes.
“The same thing applies to alcohol, which the writer talked about. Bars are still open in both Morocco and Tunisia,” the Mauritanian academic adds. “When I was a student in Morocco, the Islamists were running one of the biggest wine-producing municipalities. Islamists and bars lived well in prosperity.”
In his criticism of the secularists, El Hadj wrote, “There is yet another thing that is not important to you, teaching religion.” He also accused secularists of rejecting any “Islamic interest-free programmes for economic and financial transactions”.
Ould Borham hastened to respond to the charges, saying that his Islamist adversary “criticises secularism for not paying attention to religious teaching”.
If that’s the case, the professor continues, “then we can ask him the following: ‘Where did political Islam supporters graduate in their religious training? Wasn’t it from the religious schools that were financed by secular regimes?'”
“Secularism doesn’t mean a ban on religious teaching; rather, it means turning it into academic education,” he says.
“The writer’s article was subtitled ‘Islamic victory’, as if it were decisive and final,” Ould Borham remarks. “Those who stand outside [their] circle don’t see this as a decisive victory for the Islamist movement.”
In Tunisia, he writes, “the Islamists won fewer votes than what the secularists won together, and had to ally with two secular parties”, while in Morocco, he continues, “the Islamists didn’t get more than 24% of votes, although they led the race”.
“By the way, the Moroccan electoral experience is almost in its third decade, and it has seen victories for several secular parties with votes greater than the ‘very big victory’ of the Islamists,” Ould Borham notes.
Ould Borham also points out that unlike those Islamists who boast, “The moderate Islamists who won in the elections, such as Rachid Ghannouchi, and especially Abdelilah Benkirane, have preferred to distance themselves from the language of the victorious”.
“Benkirane was keen on talking about Islamist struggles as part… of the struggle for democracy and as an extension of Moroccan leftist and liberal movements,” he writes.
Ould Borham delivers one last indictment of El Hadj’s braggadocio.
“I believe that clinging to the long national struggle, like what the moderate Islamists are doing, serves these movements more than the language of the victorious.”
Raby Ould Idoumou is a Nouakchott-based writer and terrorism analyst. He also serves as a communications director for the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (AMDH).