Spain and Islamist Movements: from the Victory of the FIS to the Arab Spring

Published: January 19, 2015

by Ana I. Planet and Miguel Hernando de Larramendi —

Although concerns about political Islam in the western world can be traced back to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the need to articulate a position in Spain in the face of the rise of political Islamism was delayed until the end of the 1980s and coincided with the reactivation of foreign policy towards the Mediterranean after decades of international isolation. After Spain’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1986, its diplomatic goal became to make the Mediterranean an area of influence that would allow the Iberian nation to buttress its status as a middle power.

Since 1995, Spain has led a renewal in Euro-Mediterranean relations. By Europeanising its agenda towards the Mediterranean, Spain sought to channel European resources to a region that is vital for its security interests. The philosophy that inspired the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership launched in Barcelona that year held that it was not sufficient to maintain trade relations alone, but rather that relations with the southern Mediterranean needed to include political, social and cultural elements, following the model of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). This new framework emphasised the importance of the participation of civil society in the Euro-Mediterranean process. However, the democratisation and human rights objectives were merely rhetorical and in practice remained subordinate to an economic agenda.  After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, economic affairs gave way to security concerns, and civil society had no active role to play in what were basically intergovernmental relations

Political Islamism first posed a challenge to Spanish foreign policy at the end of the 1980s. The dynamics of political liberalisation initiated by Arab regimes to counteract their legitimacy deficit placed the question of whether or not Islamist movements should be integrated into the politics at the centre of these processes. The legalisation of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria in 1989 as part of the process of political openness championed by President Chadli Bendjedid presented a significant predicament for Spanish foreign policy in the Maghreb, a region where – due to both geographic proximity and historical relationships – Spanish interests in the Arab world are concentrated.

The question of integrating Islamist movements into politics in Arab countries entered a new phrase in 2001. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration defended the need to promote democratisation in the Arab world, in the belief that the continued existence of authoritarian regimes created favourable conditions for the development of jihadist terrorism. The military intervention in Iraq in 2003 was justified, a posteriori, as an instrument to foster a democratisation process that would reach the other Arab states by osmosis. In this context, the integration of Islamist parties – the main opposition forces – constituted a challenge for Arab regimes with close ties to the United States. Their status as allies in the American “War on Terror” allowed the regimes to decrease the pressure put on them, claiming that democratisation could not be imposed from outside, but had to be the result of processes of change taking place inside each state. However, the dynamics of change had already begun in the region. During the last decade, Islamist movements won seats in legislative elections held in Algeria (2002 and 2007), Morocco (2002 and 2007), Jordan (2002 and 2007), Egypt (2005) and Lebanon (2000 and 2005), and claimed victory in Palestine (2006). This was the second electoral victory for an Islamist movement and thus represented a second challenge to the foreign policy of Spain and the rest of the European Union.

The Spanish position on Islamist movements

Spanish governments, regardless of their political stripe, have not formulated a defined strategy in the last two decades with which to address either relations or dialogue with Islamist movements. The Spanish policy towards these movements, which during this time have established themselves as important actors in opposition to the authoritarian regimes in the region, has been fundamentally reactive. Islamist movements have not been perceived as agents of democratisation, but as a threat to stability. For that reason, they have not been included in bilateral programmes to promote democracy and strengthen civil society financed by the Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional (Bustos 2007). Neither have they been included in international visitor programmes organised by Spanish public institutions like the Fundación Carolina, which has given priority to exchanges with Latin America.

Spanish politicians have often used the positions adopted within the framework of the European Union as cover and have subordinated any movement or proposal to a higher objective: preserving relations with political regimes perceived as guarantors of regional stability. Thus, the Spanish position has been conditioned to a large extent by the status and recognition that different Islamist movements have had in each of the Arab and Muslim states and has been determined on a case-by-case basis. After the terrorist attacks of 11 March 2004 in Madrid, an internal security dimension was introduced in the Spanish position. Although a distinction was established between Islamist movements and international terrorism at that time, after the attacks, concerns about the radicalisation of young Muslims in Spain intensified, leading to the creation of new instruments for dialogue and diplomatic initiatives.

Spain and Islamist movements in the Maghreb

News of the legalisation and subsequent victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the municipal Algerian elections in June 1990 was received with concern in Spain, which regarded the situation as a risk that could jeopardise the stability of the western Mediterranean, destabilising the other Maghreb countries and especially Morocco, which is separated from the Iberian Peninsula by only 14 kilometres. Spanish apprehension about an eventual FIS victory in the legislative elections planned for December 1991 was focused on the implications for petroleum and natural gas supplies to Spain if an Islamist party came into power (Abid 2001). Spanish diplomacy thus sought guarantees that international treaties and agreements would be respected. In 1990, Jorge Dezcallar, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General for North Africa and the Middle East, went to Algeria where he met with Abbassi Madani, one of the leaders of the FIS, who reassured the Spanish diplomat, asserting that “energy is the blood that runs through the veins of Algeria” (López and Hernando de Larramendi 2011: 264).

For Spanish politicians and analysts, the rise of political Islamism was seen as a consequence of the economic, social and political crisis that shook the region and turned it into a “time bomb” (Gillespie 2000: 148-149, 165). The stabilisation of the region, in the Spanish view, lay in encouraging development and improving living conditions for the population. This commitment to socio-political stability in the defence of Spanish interests gave rise to a realistic position that would preserve the status quo in the region, represented by authoritarian leaders in the Maghreb. The Spanish position was conceptualised as endorsing a “dynamic stability” and emphasised the conviction of “supporting democratic changes as long as they do not interfere with Spain’s strategic interests”.  Following this line, in January 1992, the Spanish government refrained from condemning the coup d’état in Algeria that brought an end to the electoral process and unleashed a gruelling civil conflict that would last for almost a decade.  During this period, the Spanish government maintained a low profile, shielding itself behind the positions established by the European Economic Community under the leadership of France, the former colonial power in Algeria. Although the Spanish government supported the right of the Algerian regime to combat Islamist terrorism, it tried to balance this position with appeals to the respect for human rights and dialogue with “all the political forces that wanted stability, including the more moderate of the groups that had defended the Islamist rebellion” (Gillespie 2000: 105).

It would seem that the priority given to relations with the Arab regimes limited the establishment of contacts with Islamist movements that were illegal or the object of political persecution. In the case of Tunisia, the Spanish government granted political asylum to some leaders of the al-Nahda party when repression of the movement intensified at the beginning of the 1990s, but declined to condemn these practices officially. In March 1995, the Spanish authorities succumbed to pressure from the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and expelled the party’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, from the country as he was preparing to participate in a conference in Cordoba on the relationship between Islam and modernity organised by the Universidad Islámica Internacional Averroes de Al-Andalus (UIIA). Years later, the link between al-Nahda and the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation, which the Tunisian authorities alleged after the 9/11 attacks, was one of the arguments invoked by the Spanish legal authorities in 2005 to withdraw the political asylum status of Ridha Barouni, a leader of the al-Nahda party and former president of the Centro Islámico de Valencia.

In Morocco, the integration of the branch of Islamism that did not question the role of the king as Amir al-Muminin, or “commander of the faithful”, into national politics created the right conditions to establish contact with Islamist leaders who, in 1996, were incorporated into the Constitutional and Democratic Popular Movement (MPDC), later the Justice and Development Party (PJD). The first contacts were made by diplomats based in the Spanish Embassy in Rabat. The incorporation of Islamist deputies in the Moroccan parliament after the September 1997 legislative elections facilitated the development of contacts both at institutional and civil society levels. The first institutional contact with Spanish political parties was the initiative of the PJD which, after the 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca, tried to break the links between political Islamism and terrorism that had been invoked by part of the Moroccan political class as a reason for its illegalisation. In the face of silence from European and Spanish diplomats, the PJD put together a communication strategy designed to establish ties with political, social and economic actors in Europe and strengthen its image as a political party with democratic credentials.  As part of a true communication campaign, a delegation from the PJD visited several European countries, including Spain. In April 2005, a delegation headed by the Secretary General of the party, Saadeddine Othmani, went to Madrid. It was received by the President of the Spanish parliament and held meetings with representatives of the three main Spanish political parties (the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party, the People’s Party and the United Left) along with leaders of the Association of Moroccan Immigrant Workers in Spain (ATIME) and the Spanish Confederation of Business Organisations (CEOE). The PJD delegation also participated in a ceremony in memory of the victims of the 11 March 2004 terrorist attacks. Two years later, Saadeddine Othmani visited Spain again, a few months before the September 2007 legislative elections. On that occasion, he was invited on par with other Moroccan political parties (the Istiqlal Party and the Socialist Union of Popular Forces) to introduce his group’s economic programme. The invitation was issued by the Arab House, a public diplomatic institution under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation in collaboration with the Spanish section of the Averroes Committee – a joint Spanish-Moroccan committee created by both countries to promote better mutual understanding – and by the National University of Distance Education (UNED), with the participation of Spanish businesspeople.

Conversely, in this same Moroccan context, the extra-legal nature of al-Adl wa al-Ihssane (Justice and Charity) – at times tolerated and at times violently repressed – has influenced Spanish attitudes towards the movement, which refuses to engage in the political game in Morocco and questions the role of the monarchy in the system. Contacts with Nadia Yassine, the daughter of the founder of the Justice and Charity movement, Abdesslam Yassine, and leader of the party’s women’s wing, go back to the late the 1990s and were initiated in a discreet fashion by Spanish diplomats working in the embassy in Rabat. Since 2003, when she recovered her passport, Nadia Yassine has visited Spain and other European countries, developing a “transnational opposition mode” that has brought outside attention to the organisation (Boubekeur and Amghar 2006: 15). Nadia Yassine’s visits generally take place in an academic context that allow her participation in university exchanges that focus on questions related to Islam and Islamic feminism.  The contacts she established with an active group of Spanish Muslims, the Junta Islámica de España, led this organisation to call for the legalisation of the Justice and Charity Movement in Morocco in May 2006.  However, because of the movement’s illegal status in Morocco, the establishment of institutional contacts with the Spanish authorities – who are concerned about creating friction with the authorities in Rabat – has been limited. Pressure from the Moroccan Embassy in Spain, for example, was successful in preventing the movement from participating in the “La Mar de Músicas” festival, organised by the Cartagena City Council on the Mediterranean coast, which dedicated its fifteenth festival in 2009 to Morocco

The trips taken by Nadia Yassine and other movement leaders like Mohamed Abbadi, a member of al-Adl wa al-Ihssane’s higher council, are also used to maintain contact with the socio-cultural associations created by Moroccans living in Spain. The organisational platform of Justice and Charity created in Spain takes advantage of the presence of the nearly 800,000 Moroccan immigrants in the country alongside a group of associations joined together in the Organización Nacional para el Diálogo y la Participación (ONDA), which has a strong showing in the regions of Murcia, Andalusia and Madrid. Although this organisation maintains close ties with al-Adl wa al-Ihssane, it has called for these ties with the Moroccan organisation to be formally broken.   Membership in the Moroccan organisation has been used as an argument by the Spanish legal system to deny Spanish nationality to several members of the organisation who applied for it after residing legally in the country for more than ten years.  Al-Adl wa al-Ihssane has become increasingly involved in Spanish religious matters, challenging attempts made by the Moroccan authorities to control this sphere. The clash between the two sides has led to disputes over control of the Spanish Federation of Islamic Religious Entities (FEERI), one of the Muslim associations that forms part of the Islamic Commission of Spain (CIE), the official mediator between the Spanish state and Muslims in the country

The Spanish position on Hamas and Hezbollah

The true test for Spanish and European policies appeared when the Hamas Islamist movement won the legislative elections organised by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in January 2006. The degree to which Spanish foreign policy was independent in thought and action and its commitment to democratic processes were put to the test by an electoral process that, despite the results, could not be termed fraudulent and received the backing of international organisations like the Carter Foundation.

The Spanish position evolved from initial acceptance of the results to alignment with the positions of the so-called Quartet (the United States, European Union, Russia and the UN), which conditioned recognition of Hamas on its accepting the agreements signed as part of the peace process, renouncing violence and recognising the State of Israel. The victory of Hamas – an organisation that, it is important to remember, was included on the European Union’s list of terrorist organisations – was considered by the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time, Miguel Angel Moratinos, as a direct attack against the peace process. But it did not stop there. The boycott of Hamas interfered with official aid for development in the Palestinian territories. Spain cut off relations with the ministries controlled by Hamas and took steps to ensure that any affected projects would henceforth be the concern of the office of President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Spanish position regarding Hezbollah has been different. Facing the boycott of Hamas, the Spanish government opted for a strategy of dialogue with the Hezbollah Islamist movement, which has given voice to part of the Shiite religious community in the Lebanese parliament since 1992. The Spanish government opposed the inclusion of Hezbollah on the European Union’s list of terrorist organisations. It has also not hesitated to maintain direct contact with the movement’s leaders. During his tour of the Middle East in August 2007, Minister Moratinos met with Hezbollah’s number two, Naim Qassem.   Various factors explain the inclusive position that Spain has taken towards Hezbollah (Tomé 2011:232-233). The fact that the organisation is not included on the EU’s list of terrorist organisations makes it possible to argue that there is a need to speak with all the actors in order to justify dialogue with an organisation which stresses its political and representative character. Maintaining dialogue also fulfils the need to ensure the security of the contingent of 1,100 Spanish soldiers in Lebanon since September 2006 – Spanish troops that form part of the United National Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL II) are deployed in the south part of the country in a Shiite majority region controlled by Hezbollah.

The relationship with political Islam, a marginal but real debate

The issue of a relationship and dialogue with Islamist movements was not a subject of political debate in Spain until the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The question, then, is: what was the position of the main Spanish political groups regarding these types of movements and organisations? During the 1990s, the view of the principle political parties was determined to a large extent by the evolution of the Algerian civil conflict. During this period, the position of the Socialist Party (PSOE), which was in power between 1982 and 1996, and the People’s Party, in power between 1996 and 2004, converged, both perceiving the emergence of Islamism as a source of risk and a threat. In 1992, the Cánovas del Castillo Foundation, which has ties to the People’s Party, organised a seminar on “Islamic Fundamentalism” featuring the participation of future Prime Minister José María Aznar.  Years later, the electoral programme that the People’s Party ran and won on in 1996 stressed the course of “recommending that simplistic formulas of a generalised rejection of these movements be eschewed and imaginative channels for relationships and dialogue be found with its moderate manifestations”.

The transformation of Spain into a country of immigration during those years and the acceptance of neoconservative thought, which argued a link between jihadist terrorism and Islam after the 9/11 attacks, by groups like the People’s Party transformed the terms of the debate. The positions of the People’s Party in this respect – although not monolithic – tended to be ideologised (Fernández Molina 2009: 56-59). The Foundation for Social Studies and Analysis (FAES), a People’s Party think tank created by Prime Minister Aznar, played an active role in accepting neoconservative ideas from the United States and maintaining positions that were critical of Islamism. However, the People’s Party contains other leaders like Gustavo de Aristegui, a diplomat and spokesman for the Spanish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission who is very knowledgeable about the Arab world. While establishing a link between ideology and terrorism (Aristegui 2000: 185), he has distanced himself from the thesis argued by some FAES researchers who speculate about “the impending establishment of a Caliphate in Europe” (Bardají 2006: 185). The branch of the People’s Party represented by de Aristegui has maintained more nuanced positions. While presuming a more or less direct tie between Islamism, understood as a “totalitarian ideology”, and terrorist acts, they have admitted that some forms of “political Islam”, such as those represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, are not necessarily illegitimate (Aristegui 2003: 117).

For its part, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, while rejecting the ideologised positions of the neoconservatives, has not succeeded in elaborating a clear position regarding dialogue and political cooperation with moderate Islamist movements (as has been the case with a large part of the European left) (Mathieson and Youngs 2006: 13,19). Thus, although some socialist representatives have suggested the advisability of “supporting forms of moderate Islamism that have important social support” (Aburto 2008: 25), they have not taken any steps in this direction. The links established through the Socialist International Mediterranean Committee with parties from the same political family (the Algerian Socialist Forces Front and the Socialist Union of Popular Forces in Morocco), for example, have not helped to add nuance to the negative view of Islamist parties in general.  Not included among them, however, is the Turkish Justice and Development Party (JDP), which is believed to share “broad similarities” and whose plan of action is seen as “progressive in many aspects” (Fernández Molina 2009: 55).

Tools and opportunities for interaction with political Islam

The lack of any clear policy towards Islamist movements has not impeded the existence of contacts and opportunities for interaction and dialogue, which have intensified over the last decade. In this process, the 11 March 2004 terrorist attacks, which resulted in 191 fatalities in Madrid, acted as a salutary lesson, leading the Spanish authorities to pay more attention to Islam, Islamism and jihadist terrorism. The subsequent trial showed that many Moroccan immigrants participated in the attacks and thus intensified concerns about radicalisation processes among young Muslims and the role that transnational Muslim movements might be playing in this process.

The socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which won the elections held three days after the attacks, pushed through a battery of diplomatic and institutional initiatives designed to change the course of Prime Minister Aznar’s government, which had supported the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In September 2004, Zapatero officially argued for the creation of an “Alliance of Civilisations” between the western world and the Arab-Muslim world before the General Assembly of the United Nations (Barreñada 2006:99-104). This diplomatic initiative, which was inspired by the earlier proposal by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami for a “Dialogue of Civilisations”, was presented as a soft power tool with which to combat international terrorism. The initiative was approved by the United Nations in 2007, and supported by 107 states and 20 international organisations. Zapatero’s government was able to get Turkey – a country whose candidacy to join the European Union has been supported by all Spanish governments, regardless of their political stripe – to co-sponsor the initiative. The endorsement of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (JDP), which while defined as a conservative democratic party in its statutes, is seen in Europe as a moderate Islamist party (Cajal 2011), was intended to give greater credibility to the initiative. In an interview with CNN, Prime Minister Zapatero described it as a “grand alliance with moderate Islam to isolate violent members”.  In January 2008 in Madrid, the Spanish government hosted the first Forum for the Alliance of Civilisations and drafted two National Plans for the Alliance of Civilisations, designed to instil the initiative’s principles in Spain.

The U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, along with the U.K. based group Forward Thinking, sponsored The Nyon Process, launched in Switzerland in 2008 as a forum for informal direct dialogue with Muslim activists. With the support of Switzerland, Portugal, Spain and Turkey, this initiative has provided a platform for discreet dialogue between western political leaders, policy advisors and activists. The third meeting was held in Madrid in March 2009 and was hosted by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Domestically, concerns about the eventual radicalisation of Spanish Islam have not only led to the fortification of police and security resources allocated to monitor the issue, but have also resulted in other initiatives aimed at strengthening the public presence of Muslims through the development of their own cultural and social action programmes. In October 2004, the Foundation for Pluralism and Coexistence was created. Part of the Ministry of Justice, the foundation’s goals are to promote religious freedom through cooperation with minority religions, especially those that are specifically recognised by the Spanish state: Islam, Protestantism and Judaism. Although its purview is broader in scope, the foundation was originally founded as an international response to the 11 March 2004 terrorist attacks. The foundation offers subsidies to build up the bodies responsible for social dialogue within each of the religions that have cooperation agreements with the Spanish state. It also facilitates financing for cultural, educational and social integration projects proposed by religious associations. By following the foundation’s subventions and its support for academic research, it has been possible to produce a snapshot of Islam in Spain, its organisation and operation and the role played by movements like Tablighi Jamaat, in the case of Pakistan, and the Moroccan al-Adl wa al-Ihssane.

For its part, the Ministry of Justice Directorate General for Religious Affairs – currently “the committee on work with religious structures” – has been actively participating by creating networks and sharing experiences with ministries in other European countries responsible for dialogue with Muslim organisations in different countries. The concern about Islam and political Islamism in the Spanish administration is also reflected in the organisation of specific educational courses on Islam aimed at civil servants. Organised since 2006 by the Spanish Diplomatic School, these courses have been co-organised since 2009 with the Arab House, a public diplomatic institution formed in 2006 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. These courses look at the reality and evolution of Islam in its ideological and political aspects, inviting active members from Muslim associations as speakers. In 2010, for example, Rachid Boutarbuch, the president of the Spanish League of Imams and driving force behind the establishment of the al-Adl wa-l-Ihssane movement in Spain, was a participant

In 2004, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs created a working group under the auspices of its analysis and outlook cabinet that led to the publication of an internal report in March 2005 entitled “Islam and Politics in Europe.” In October 2006, an ambassador-at-large was appointed to handle relations with Muslim organisations and communities abroad for the first time.  Affiliated with the Directorate General of Political Affairs, Middle East and North Africa Division, this ambassador monitors and dialogues with Muslims in Europe and Arab countries with a very broad mandate (in contrast to the limited material resources set aside for the role). This ambassador has also participated in interfaith dialogue forums such as those advanced by Qatar and The Nyon Process. Spain also used interfaith dialogues during its presidency of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In that year, 2007, the city of Cordoba hosted an International Conference on Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims, presented by the Spanish Chairmanship of the OSCE.

The Spanish government has also participated – though keeping a low profile – in other discreet and informal initiatives for dialogue with leaders of moderate Islamist movements promoted by independent mediation institutions and think tanks. Since 2010, Spanish diplomats have taken part in meetings organised in Geneva by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. The level of Spanish participation has been lower than that of other countries like Norway, Germany, France, Canada and Switzerland, who have been represented at these forums by Director Generals, while Spain’s representative is the ambassador-at-large for Mediterranean affairs.

Spain and Islamist movements after the Arab Spring

The uprisings that begin in Tunisia in December 2010 took Spanish diplomacy by surprise and called into question the paradigm of authoritarian stability on which Spanish and European policy toward the Mediterranean had rested (Echagué 2011). The need to respond to the unexpected disturbances that ended up bringing down the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen was complicated by a new dilemma related to the advances in the democratisation processes that were underway by Islamist movements. Although the uprisings were not led by these movements and the demands that drove them were not associated with an Islamist ideology, Islamist parties secured a majority in the elections held in Tunisia (October 2011), Morocco (November 2011) and Egypt (November 2011 – March 2012).

In an article published in December 2011, the then Socialist Minister for Foreign Affairs Trinidad Jiménez argued that it was necessary to “give a vote of confidence to the new political forces when they proclaim their commitment to democracy”. For the minister, the uprisings ushered in “the end of Arab-Muslim particularism in terms of the supposed incompatibility between Islam and democracy and Islam and human rights”. Bernardino León, General-Secretary of the Presidency of the Spanish Government between 2008 and 2011 and EU special envoy to the southern Mediterranean since 2011, argued a similar line.  The Spanish diplomat stated that “democracy must not generate fear; it will always be the right choice”, at the same time defending how important it is for “Islamist parties to experience a government that is good and moderate”.  This reassuring viewpoint was also shared by former Minister for Foreign Affairs Moratinos, who emphasised that “moderate political Islamism should not be frightening […] as long as it creates the right conditions to guarantee public freedom and the state of law”.

When the People’s Party came into power in December 2011, it had not substantially changed its position. Moderate Islamist movements are accepted as political players in their capacity as actors in the transition process. Gonzalo de Benito, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, asserted that “political Islamism was being integrated naturally and reasonably into the power structures in transition countries”, but he advised “not to become obsessed about the rise of this political choice, but to pay more attention to the economic development in those countries to prevent frustration”.  The lack of development and opportunity are considered “the breeding ground” where radical Islamist groups can gain strength. At both bilateral and multilateral levels, Spanish diplomacy defends financial assistance to these countries to prevent the growth of Salafi movements that “feed on populations lacking material hope”.  During his appearance before the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission to present his ministry’s general course of action, Minister José Manuel García Margallo stated, “we must make sure that the Arab Spring results in a summer of freedom and under no circumstances in a fundamentalist winter”.  This view could not hide the fact that the Spanish government would prefer other options. When the Islamist Green Alliance coalition came in third in the legislative elections held in Algeria in May 2012, the news was received with relief by the minister, who after learning the election results, declared at a press conference, “Thank God, the Islamists did not win in Algeria ”

This post-revolutionary scenario – a far cry from the image constructed in Europe of the Arab Spring as a group of popular revolutions carried out by young liberals taking advantage of new technologies – has increased concerns about the potential impact that the rise of Islamism might have on human rights, freedom of conscience and, secondarily but always present, the situation of women. These questions were presented in an opinion piece published by the Spanish Ambassador to Egypt who, despite emphasising that the road to democratisation would not be easy, noted the example of other countries like Turkey and Indonesia that “have shown that cultural synthesis is the approach with the greatest potential to find viable formulas for modernisation”.  The cautious, reassuring positions taken by Spanish politicians and diplomats have been questioned by some intellectuals with connections to the right who have revealed their mistrust in the face of the sudden conversion of the Muslim Brotherhood into moderate Islamists awaiting the favourable changes to come when they exercise power

Spain’s official position regarding this dynamic of change in the Arab world is that of supporting the processes of political and economic transition that are underway, because its national security depends on the stability and prosperity of its neighbours in the southern Mediterranean. The role that Islamist movements are playing in the transition processes and the uprisings (e.g. in Libya and Syria) has forced the Spanish authorities to react.  Their status as inevitable actors in the transition processes mean that they must search for stable and official channels for dialogue.  The Arab Spring has spurred the establishment of relations with the Tunisian al-Nahda party and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and intensified the already existing links with groups like the Moroccan PJD. Spanish embassies have increased their contacts with a dynamic Islamist field that is increasingly plural, but also with liberal elites who rose to positions of responsibility after the disturbances and with whom there was almost no contact before (Majdoubi 2012: 267-268).  In Tunisia, Spanish Ambassador Antonio Cosano reached out to Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of al-Nahda, for the first time after he returned from his exile in London in January 2011. In Egypt, the Spanish ambassador also formalised contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been very limited. In March 2011, Spanish Ambassador Fidel Sendagorta made his first visit to the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. Since then, contacts have intensified with the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the Brotherhood and with the businessmen’s lobby with connections to the organisation, the Egyptian Development Business Association (EBDA).  Contacts in Egypt have also been made to other Islamist groups like al-Wasat and al-Tayyar al-Masry and the Salafi al-Nour party although in the last case, it is a counsellor and not the ambassador who is maintaining contact. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to participate in dialogue and debate forums sponsored by The Nyon Process, which, thanks to the new context, have been able to take place in southern Mediterranean countries like Tunisia.

The normalisation of contacts with Islamist movements carried out from embassies has been accompanied by the establishment of relations in the political arena. The Spanish authorities are presenting the experience of the Spanish transition – and its inclusive approach towards all the political parties in the country that respected political norms – as a model for the processes of change in the Arab world. Prime Minister Zapatero in his visit to Tunisia in early March 2011 – the first made by a European leader after President Ben Ali was overthrown – did just that. Socialist Minister for Foreign Affairs Trinidad Jiménez also invoked the Spanish transition model during a meeting with representatives of the 25 January Youth Coalition, a heterogeneous conglomerate including members from the Muslim Brotherhood, during her visit to Egypt.  The first contact made by Spanish political representatives with leaders of the Islamist movements in these two countries was made in May 2011 by a delegation of parliamentarians visiting Egypt. The Spanish delegation met with political actors from different affiliations including Saad el Katatni a leader of the Justice and Liberty Party. José Antonio Durán i Lleida, the president of the Spanish delegation and the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission noted that “the Muslim Brotherhood is part of Egyptian society and what a part of the population says cannot be ignored”.  His view of the Salafi groups was more critical, as he called them a “mortal danger for democracy”. The preferences of the Spanish delegation inclined towards the secular parties, which they encouraged to unite and not run separately in the elections

Various think tanks and action tanks specialising in international relations, and partly financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, have also taken part in the creation of opportunities for dialogue with Islamist movements. One of the most active in terms of searching for channels for dialogue with Arab civil society, including Islamist movements, is the Toledo International Centre for Peace (CITpax). Members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (Toledo, 2006) and Hezbollah leaders (Toledo 2007) have participated in seminars held behind closed doors at the centre. CITpax has also taken part in informal meetings with representatives of Islamist movements organised in Geneva by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. In collaboration with this institution, CITpax organised a closed-door seminar in Madrid in July 2011 with leaders of al-Nahda, the PJD and the FJP, a few months before the first post-Arab Spring elections were held in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. The place chosen for the meeting, the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies, was symbolic of the Spanish transition.

The election results and the formation of coalition governments headed by Islamist leaders in Tunisia and Morocco after the electoral victories of al-Nahda (October 2011) and the PJD (November 2011) have institutionalised and normalised contacts with internationally accepted leaders invited to participate in international forums such as the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. The People’s Party, which won the elections one week before the Davos meeting, issued a press release in November 2011 congratulating the PJD on its democratic victory and declaring their confidence that “their political and democratic commitment will benefit the general interest of the Moroccan people and also foster good bilateral relations”. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy officially met with Secretary-General of the PJD and new Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane during his first visit abroad, which was to Morocco. In February 2012, Saadeddine Othmani visited Spain in his capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs and also met with members of the government and the King of Spain. That same month, President Artur Mas of the Generalitat of Catalonia, the region with highest number of Moroccan immigrants in Spain, met with Benkirane during the visit he made to Morocco accompanied by a delegation of Catalonian businesspeople. In March, José Antonio Duran i Lleida met with Saadeddine Othmani in Rabat, coinciding with the meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union for the Mediterranean held in that city. In May 2012, the Moroccan Prime Minister made an official visit to Spain during which he met with the President of the Government, the President of the Senate and the King and during which he announced a conference on “democratic change in Morocco after the approval of the new constitution” in Barcelona at the headquarters of the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMED). The normalisation of relations has also taken place with the al-Nahda party, which has presided over the coalition government formed in Tunisia since the elections to the National Constituent Assembly held in October 2011.  During his visit to Tunisia in March 2012, Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs García Margallo met with Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and his counterpart in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rafik Ben Abdessalam. During the visit, an agreement was made to hold a meeting between Tunisian and Spanish parliamentarians organised by the Fundación Carolina, allowing the foundation to extend its activities towards the Arab world. García Margallo reiterated Spain’s commitment to ensuring that the EU give preferential treatment to Tunisia with the aim of consolidating “a democratic regime, with religious freedom, that can show neighbouring countries the path to follow to deepen relations with Europe”.


Mouna Abid El islamismo y su reflejo. La crisis argelina en la prensa española. Ediciones Mundo Árabe e Islam, AECI, Madrid 2000.

Fátima Aburto,, «El desarrollo regional mediterráneo», en Fundació Rafael Campalans: ¿Del Proceso de Barcelona a la Unión Euromediterránea?] Fundació Rafael Campalans, Barcelona 2008, pp. 25-28.

Gustavo de Arístegui “Nuestra postura ante los conflictos cercanos, Oriente medio, Balcanes, terrorismo y narcotráfico”, in AAVV. España, un actor destacado en el ámbito internacional, FAES, Madrid 2000, pp. 181-247.

Gustavo de Arístegui, La Yihad en España. La obsesión por reconquistar Al-Andalus, Madrid, La Esfera de los Libros 2005.

Gustavo de Arístegui,El nuevo terrorismo y las nuevas amenazas», in Alejandro del Valle Gálvez (ed.), Los nuevos escenarios internacionales y europeos del derecho y la seguridad, Escuela Diplomática/AEPDIRI/BOE, Madrid, pp. 109-124

Rafael Bardají, “El mundo en el 2025. Un escenario de futuro”, Cuadernos de Pensamiento Político, nº 11, pp. 185-192

Isaías Barreñada and Iván Martín, “La sociedad civil y la Asociación Euromediterránea: de la retórica a la práctica”, Papeles de Cuestiones Internacionales, No. 92, Winter 2005-2006, pp. 79-89.

Isaías Barreñada, (2006): “Alliance of Civilisations, Spanish Public Diplomacy and Cosmopolitan Proposal”, Mediterranean Politics, vol. 11, No. 1, p. 99-104.

Rafael Bustos, “España y la promoción de la gobernanza en Argelia” in Revista CIDOB d’Afers Internacionals No. 79-80 (2007), pp. 167-188.

Máximo Cajal, Alianza de Civilizaciones de las Naciones Unidas: Una mirada al futuro, Madrid, Biblioteca Nueva 2011.

Ana Echagüe, “Time for Spain to Lead the EU’s Mediterranean Policy”, Policy Brief, FRIDE No. 54,  (2011).  Available at

Enara Echart Muñoz,: Movimientos sociales y relaciones internacionales. La irrupción de un nuevo actor. IUDC/Los Libros de la Catarata, Madrid, 2008, pp. 215-282.

Juan José Escobar Stemmann, “Activismo islámico en España “, Política Exterior No.124, (2008)

Juan José Escobar Stemmann. “Middle East Salafism’s influence and the radicalization of Muslim communities in Europe”, The Middle East Review of Middle East Affairs , Volume 10, No. 3, Article 1/10

Juan José Escobar Stemmann.  “Los islamistas y la democracia ¿Debate imposible?”, Política Exterior, núm. 116. Marzo / Abril 2007

Laura Feliú “España y la promoción de los derechos humanos en el Mediterráneo (1996-2007): Propuesta de un modelo de análisis”, Documentos Cidob, Mediterráneo y Oriente Medio No. 14, 2009.

Irene Fernández Molina “Los partidos políticos y la política exterior española hacia el Magreb. Los casos del PSOE y el PP” in Miguel Hernando de Larramendi y Aurelia Mañé (eds.) La política exterior española hacia el Magreb. Actores e intereses, Ariel 2009, pp. 37-60.

Miguel Hernando de Larramendi y Aurelia Mañé (eds.) La política exterior española hacia el Magreb. Actores e intereses, Ariel 2009.

Gillespie, Richard, Spain and the Mediterranean, Macmillan Press 2000.

Majdoubi Bahida, El Houssine Revolución por la dignidad en el mundo árabe, Icaria, Barcelona, 2012.

David Mathieson and Richard Youngs,  «La promoción de la democracia y la izquierda europea: ¿Una confusa ambivalencia?», FRIDE, documento de trabajo No. 29. (2006)

Laia Mestres and Eduard Soler i Lecha, “Spain and Turkey: A Long-Lasting Alliance in a turbulent Context?”, Insight Turkey, vol. 8, No. 2, (2006), p. 117-126.

Bernabé López, Gema Martín and Miguel H. Larramendi, Elecciones, Participación y Transiciones Políticas en el Norte de África, Instituto de Cooperación con el Mundo Árabe, Madrid 1991

Bernabé López and Miguel Hernando de Larramendi (2002): “Spain and North Africa: Towards a Dynamic Stability”, Democratization, Vol 9, No.1, pp.  170-191

Bernabé López and Miguel Hernando de Larramendi “Le Maghreb et l’Espagne” en Khadija Mohsen.Finan )ed.) Le Maghreb dans les relations internationales, IFRI, Paris 2011, pp. 243-275

Ana I. Planet Contreras, “El Estado marroquí ante sus emigrantes y la ciudadanía marroquí en la diáspora”. Análisis del Real Instituto Elcano, No. 59/2011.


Laurence Thieux, “España y la crisis argelina” in López García, Bernabé and Hernando de Larramendi, Miguel (2010): España, el Mediterráneo y el mundo árabomusulmán. Diplomacia e historia, Barcelona Icaria, pp. 185-204.

Beatriz Tomé “Los partidos islamistas ¿nuevos interlocutores?” in Unisci Discussion Paers, No. 27, (2011). Pp. 212-234.

This paper first appeared in the E-Book, The West and the Muslim Brotherhood After the Arab Spring, co-published in 2013 by Al-Mesbar Center for Research and Studies and the Foreign Policy Research Institute.