By Hakim Khatib
Using religious frameworks in political contestation and mobilisation has become more eminent in recent decades spiralling an intricate debate on the conceptualisation and implementation of such references in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The contradiction, it is argued, mainly lies in the compromising nature of politics and the relatively dogmatic nature of religion. Boosted by inaccurate media coverage and primordial analytical frameworks, it has become tempting to see religion as responsible for conflicts and underachievement in the MENA region.
In the conventional sense, Islamic movements are often held responsible for implementing religion towards political ends. However, this is not always true as the nondemocratic states in the MENA region and elsewhere in the Muslim majority world had constantly attempted to control ideological power – Islamic religion and its organisations in this case – before Islamic movements even came to exist in the form we know today.
By the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, uprisings across the Arab world toppled long-lasting dictators starting from Tunisia’s Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Al-Gaddafi and then Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. These changes altered the political systems in these countries brining new overlapping, intertwined and intersecting networks of relations, by which new political actors and temporal dynamics have emerged.
Islamic factions, Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood and their shades, did not join the revolutionary momentum in Egypt from the very beginning, yet they played a major role after the “25 January revolution” winning 351 seats from 498, around 70% of the Egyptian parliament. The conservative Islamic Freedom and Justice Party owned 45.7% while the ultra conservative Salafi Al-Noor Party 23.6%, according to the Official Elections Portal of Egypt.
The Egyptian uprising was not per se a social revolution aiming at changing the social structures, but rather a political one aiming at deposing a 30-year rule of dictatorship. Yet we can witness a shift in power balance altering the ideological power relations with other power organisations pushing Islamic factions to the top of the political pyramid to appoint a president – Mohammad Morsi – at one time and a shift back to elect a coup installed regime under Abdulfattah Al-Sisi, who accordingly called for an Islamic revolution and reformation of religious discourse at another time. How can we account for such dramatic divergences in trajectories within less than five years?
Acknowledging that political contestation and mobilisation processes in the state of Egypt, or any other state for that matter, cannot be reduced to only ideological dimensions. The increase of political instrumentalisation in politics owes not to the nature and features of the Islamic religion, but rather to the constant power struggle between the elites of the ruling blocs to practice dominance over ideological power networks and sources in order legitimatise, mobilise, persuade, contest, control, lure, coerce and eliminate.
This power struggle within military, security, political and religious institutions could pave the way for political instrumentalisation of Islam and trigger elimination and outbidding processes instead of democratic contestation. Elimination processes create new network-like formations on the periphery and interstitial to official power networks relying (as we see in Egypt) on religion’s transcendence and socio-spatial extensive organisation.
Seizure of power or change of its distribution is more likely to trigger new forms of relations and perhaps networks, variable in their efficiency and capacity, following a division of labour between those who control security, the military, political institutions and those who control ideological networks. This division of labour necessitates new emergent social relations to satisfy these actors’ needs. Precisely somewhere at the beginning of this process, a space for political instrumentalisation of Islam could occur to seize power.
Interstitial forms of extensive interactions, increasingly out of the official control emerge attracting more diffused masses of people, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s followers, to become part of these interstitial networks. Thus, power struggle to have a good grip on ideological power emerges from its distinctive form of social organisation to legitimatise specific forms of authority and to solve contradictions in society.
Ideology is a source of power exercised by an ideological network like other political, military and economic powers. However, ideological power can be more resilient if it is shared, divided, organized, reorganized and mobilized by other power networks. While ideological power enjoys a level of autonomy, which impels its networks to serve their own interests individually if possible, it can be stretched over other power organizations passing on a space for dangerously religious outbidding game and a cynical use of religion. That is why ideological power plays a decisive role in the power struggle in the Middle East. Thus, it is not the nature of the religion, but rather the usefulness of the ideological power for integrating, stabilising and mobilising social life.