Skip to main content

From political Islam to illiberal nationalism: the MENA states' war for hearts and minds 

Islamist parties are falling out of favor across the region, as leaders hope to offer economic benefits combined with authoritarianism.
Erdogan Qurashi

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing a difficult election on May 14, announced on April 30 that Turkish intelligence had killed Abu Hussein al-Quraishi — the latest self-styled “Islamic State Caliph” — in Afrin, a Syrian territory under the control of the Turkish military and its proxy Free Syrian Army fighters. 

Why would Erdogan, known for a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired agenda mixed with Turkish nationalism, decide to display such window dressing, which broke with his long-standing leniency toward jihadi groups? Mainly because political Islam has become a liability in the Middle East and North Africa as a whole. In the Turkish case, distancing himself from Islamist radicals is targeting a cluster of centrist voters alienated by his mixed record.

The incident is only the latest case of MENA powers distancing themselves from political Islam. Tunisian President Kais Saied's authoritarian regime jailed Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, which had been a key player since the 2011 Arab Spring. Reactions were scarce, and the president believes that the move might boost his own authoritarian legitimacy with the support of the secularist middle classes. 

In neighboring Algeria and Morocco, Islamist parties have also been ousted from office. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule in Egypt was built from its inception on crushing the Muslim Brotherhood. And, most importantly, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power since 2017 sapped the funding of political Islam worldwide and eliminated its political language from the kingdom. The puritanical brand of Islamism has gradually been erased from the public square in today’s Saudi Arabia, where concerts, film festivals and tourism thrive while female segregation comes to an end.  

But the region's turn away from political Islam did not translate into embracing a Western democracy template — quite the opposite. What is emerging in its stead is an authoritarian-cum-efficient model like the illiberal regimes from China to Russia, with a rising anti-Western political and cultural agenda. It takes the blame away from local rulers for any failure while scapegoating the West. 

The most striking symptom of such a shift is the present rush of MENA states to join the BRICS alliance, perceived as the opposing bloc to Western hegemony. Arab alliances were identity-based gatherings that mobilized solely on topical agendas — but BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and OPEC+ now offer a combined strongarm political assertion against the West and immediate economic benefits. 

On April 6, the Saudi Cabinet approved a decision to join the SCO in the wake of the Chinese mediation between the kingdom and Iran. That political and security union, which aims at creating a Eurasian and Asian bloc to challenge the Western domination of geopolitics, is key to Russia’s global ambition after the invasion of Ukraine. It secured a number of Asian votes that did not condemn Moscow at the United Nations. And OPEC+ solidarity allowed Saudi Arabia to resist US pressure to increase oil production last July. As for BRICS, MENA countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Iran have reached different stages in their candidacy for membership. 

The 2020 Abraham Accords were designed by the Trump administration to circumvent traditional Arab hostility towards Israel in exchange for massive trade benefits. But the anti-Palestinian agenda of the Netanyahu government is now becoming a liability for the Arab signatories. Joining the BRICS or the SCO does not carry the same domestic political downsides, while it looks even more attractive in terms of prosperity benefits and fuels nationalism — be it of the illiberal type — against the West. And political Islam becomes irrelevant in such a process, because its solely doctrinal agenda cannot lift the demographically booming and impoverished youth in the MENA region into prosperity. So far, only illegal migration to Europe can do that.    

Access the Middle East news and analysis you can trust

Join our community of Middle East readers to experience all of Al-Monitor, including 24/7 news, analyses, memos, reports and newsletters.


Only $100 per year.