Is it time to separate religion from politics in the Maghreb?

The slogan “Step Down”, which was widely used in the Arab Spring revolutions several years ago, has begun to reappear in the region from Tataouine in South Tunisia, a country that ignited the Arab Spring seven years ago. The slogan this time is carried by angry youth against the governor of Tataouine state to demand the rights of the residents to share the governorate’s wealth.

Does this mean that Tunisia may witness a wave of new uprisings which could shake its gains from the Arab Spring? The gains that made it the ideal model up to date for achieving reconciliation between Islam and politics.

On the other hand, another slogan is carried by angry young people in the Moroccan countryside, entitled “We are all Nasir Al-Zafzafi” to call for the release of Morocco’s leader Zafzafi who is the leader of the opposition in the countryside. The protesters claimed that they demand social justice.

The protests in Tunisia and Morocco are not free of religious ideologies. The religion remains an essential element in directing such uprisings. This link between religion and politics serves as a fuel that increase the flames of such uprisings and may turn them into widespread popular revolutions.

The popular uprisings in Maghreb may differ in their slogans, but they are similar in their motives, which concentrate on the economic suffering of the people. The suffering appears largely in the widespread unemployment among young people in both countries. The unemployment has become a hotbed for releasing the anger of the Arab youth and has been exploited religiously and linked with politics by various forces and parties to achieve their own goals.

The dilemma of religion and politics remains the decisive factor in stirring up the Arab street since the appearance of this connection between the two elements during the Arab Spring. The Islamists exploited the popular wave of protests that were triggered by political and economic obstacles to direct such waves through different Islamic forces, parties and groups with different ideologies and doctrines.

Within Maghreb, there has been a wide debate among the members of Maghreb society with regard to the relation between religion and politics in the popular movements and confrontations between the regime and the people and the best way to handle religion to prevent exploiting it politically to achieve private goals. The penetration of religion into the structure of several political parties in Maghreb may indicate that the separation between the religion and politics is impossible and cannot be applied on the ground. Hence, the exploitation of religion by one party to challenge the credibility of the other will not stop.

After the decisions that was issued by the Moroccan Parliament were freezed due to the ongoing friction between representatives of different political parties, and after the departure of the government of Benkirane and the arrival of the government of Saadeddine Othmani, the Development and Justice Party is still leading the government with eleven ministries. This means that the faces have changed but the distribution of political power is still the same within the parliament and inside the government. And this will have its repercussions  on the weakness of any future social changes, especially in the economic sphere.

Despite that the new prime minister Saadeddine Othmani is the first Moroccan Amazigh to ascend to this position, which may win him the support of the Moroccan countryside, the political scene was quite different. This may be attributed to the fact that the partisan regime in Morocco is still suffering from major disorders that put several barriers in the face of any reformist changes in Moroccan society. The relation between religion and politics in the sphere of partisan work, which in turn is reflected in the dynamics of the political process, may be taken into account.

In Tunisia, since Ghannouchi and Nidaa Tounisia party have succeeded in achieving political reconciliation, there has been fear that the wave of popular uprisings will not be stopped completely and there is still fire under the ashes. And this what really happened in the past period. This  matter confirms that the strategies of the Tunisian parties in reconciliation government could not overcome several barriers, mainly the social and economic barriers. The interest of all political parties, including Nahda Party itself, focused on the political element in an attempt to find a permanent and stable position in power. This came at the expense of the demands and needs of the people, which have re-emerged since then in separate uprisings. The last uprising was led by young people in the main street of the capital, Bourguib, against corruption. It seems that such campaigns will not be stopped completely from the Tunisian scene.

The last evolvements in Tunisia and Morocco confirm two crucial elements. First, the negative results created by the complex relationship between religion and politics. Second, the growing resentment among the youths as a result of the economic suffering. The overlap between the two elements leads to stir the Moroccan street in the absence of clear strategy by the parliament and the government to reform the deteriorating situation.

An objective vision to handle such a complex relationship is a necessity. This vision should not focus entirely on the political factor and neglects the other factors, whether cultural, social or economic. The fact proved that such factors are the real ones in binding religion with politics. The first step in achieving separation between religion and politics lies in searching for an integrated methodology for diagnosing the main problems of the various social strata, mainly the youths who are the main fuel of any uprising or revolution, and to work hard in providing realistic solutions for such problems.

Popular uprisings in Maghreb will not stop in the coming period, but they may adopt intermittent lines. They will sometimes be active and sometimes will stop according to the cycle of economic crises. This matter requires caution, so that these uprisings could not be exploited by extremist Islamic organizations to achieve its own agenda through the use of false form of religion and attempt to mix the cards in an anarchic way.

The Arab Maghreb does not need a new spring, especially that the first Arab spring has turned into a dismal autumn in several Arab countries. The mistake does not lie in the people, but in those who lead the people. The Arab peoples till now lack a modernized and peaceful vision to make the change. The democracy in the street will quickly turn into a new type of dictatorship through elites and groups that take advantage of events to serve their own agendas.

Haifa Al-Maashi