By Marc Lynch
The denial of democratic opportunities, the rise of successful violent movements, and the shifting regional and Islamist contexts make it likely that the coming period of Islamist politics will be dominated by non–Muslim Brotherhood organizations.
Arab Islamic parties faced exceptional challenges and opportunities following the 2011 uprisings. After decades of facing authoritarian regimes, they suddenly had to navigate in radically new domestic, regional, and intra-Islamist contexts. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had the most spectacular rise and fall, but its experience was atypical of other Islamist parties, which adapted more successfully. These changes overhauled the structure, ideology, and strategy of these parties in ways that unsettled long-standing expectations about their ideas and behavior.
Trends for Islamist Parties
- Islamist parties were poorly equipped to deal with the political openings after the Arab uprisings in 2011, but many have adapted to the aftermath in diverse and pragmatic ways.
- The rise and fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was critically important across the region, but its experience was not typical compared to other regional Islamist parties.
- Islamist parties have continued to participate successfully in democratic elections despite domestic and regional pressures.
- The challenges to the organizational coherence and hierarchy of many Islamist movements and the failures of their older leaders have led to internal arguments over leadership, ideology, and strategy.
- Islamist parties that have traditionally positioned themselves as alternatives to violent jihadi organizations are struggling with increasingly radical and sectarian regional trends.
Findings and Recommendations
- Islamist parties should be viewed not as uniquely ideological actors but as rational political movements responding to distinctive political opportunities and challenges in each of their countries.
- Islamist parties will continue to play an important role in the politics of most Arab states, despite the pressures they have faced in recent years.
- Because Islamist parties tend to adapt to the political environment in which they operate, regimes should allow opportunities for their continued participation in formal politics rather than force them underground or into violent resistance.
- Islamist parties have typically positioned themselves as centrist movements, providing a means for Islamically oriented citizens to participate nonviolently in mainstream political life. They gain by defending this middle ground rather than veering toward extreme stances that would ultimately marginalize them.
- The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other Salafi-jihadi movements challenged Islamist parties by offering a seemingly more successful model of action. The need for effective firewalls against radicalization is why the Islamic State’s military and political setbacks, especially in Iraq, could create opportunities for the revival of mainstream political Islamist alternatives.
Introduction: The Imperative of Reinvention
Islamist parties have been rocked by the dramatic political upheavals in the Arab world during the past five years. After a decade of patient political participation, outreach to the West, and careful positioning against al-Qaeda, several Islamist parties—all part of the broader Muslim Brotherhood movement—rapidly took over positions of political power in the wake of the 2010–2011 Arab uprisings. These parties won electoral victories in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia, and they played key roles in Western-backed political coalitions in Syria and Yemen.
However, these openings were just as quickly reversed. Tunisia’s Ennahdha Party stepped down from power in January 2014 in the midst of political turmoil, and Libya’s Islamists fared poorly when legislative elections were held in late June 2014. Most strikingly, the Egyptian military coup of July 3, 2013, overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood figure who had been elected president in 2012, and triggered an intense crackdown against the organization across the region.
These reversals not only undermined short-term political gains by Islamist political parties, but they also disrupted carefully cultivated gradualist political strategies, discredited long-held ideological and strategic convictions, and reshaped the terrain of Islamist politics. Prior to the Arab uprisings, most Islamist parties presented fairly stable and predictable political strategies, organizational structures, and ideological positions. Both the political openings of 2011 and the harsh reversals in subsequent years placed new demands on these movements. Hasty, erratic political maneuvering replaced cautious long-term political strategies as Islamists struggled to grasp new opportunities and respond to new threats. Today, most Islamist parties find themselves navigating in uncharted waters as they struggle with new forms of state repression, social polarization, organizational distress, regional rivalries, international hostility, and intra-Islamist competition.
The failures of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have often been taken as emblematic of a wider pathology in Islamist politics.
The failures of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have often been taken as emblematic of a wider pathology in Islamist politics. The poor choices, alienating behavior, and ultimate failure of the Egyptian Brotherhood after 2011 have been explained in terms of the particularities of its organizational structure and Islamist ideology.1
But other national Brotherhood organizations have responded quite differently, and more successfully, to recent regional political developments. Even inside Egypt, sharply different approaches have emerged across generational and ideological divides within the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
The track record of the post-Arab uprising period does not support the conclusion that Islamists are especially ideological actors or that they have been revealed to be inherently incapable of participating in democratic politics. Not all Islamist parties face equally grim prospects, and outside of Egypt some have found new opportunities to advance their political agendas. What does the full spectrum of political adjustments by mainstream Islamist parties say about their current conditions and their likely future political prospects?
Political context, not qualities inherent to Islamist ideology or organization, best accounts for the full range of recent outcomes. These Islamist parties had choices shaped by local political context, and some national parties did better than others in steering through their new environments. Islamist party choices should be understood not as pure expressions of their ideology but as responses to political opportunities and challenges. Their choices are often more tactically driven and less ideologically transformative than they may appear at first blush.
As the influential leader of Tunisia’s Ennahdha Party, Rached al-Ghannouchi, explained in an August 2016 interview, changes in his own party consistently followed from the political context. Ennahdha was an underground Islamist movement in the 1990s and 2000s when it resisted an autocratic regime, but it became a traditional political party after the 2011 revolution, when it competed within a democratic system.2
A similar pattern can be seen across multiple Islamist parties in the region. Pragmatism and caution, not ideological or revolutionary fervor, have been and will likely remain the guiding principles for mainstream Islamist political parties as long as political systems provide such opportunities.
Pragmatism and caution, not ideological or revolutionary fervor, have been and will likely remain the guiding principles for mainstream Islamist political parties.
This pragmatism has been sorely tested by both the opportunities and threats in the new regional environment. The impact of the environment can perhaps be seen most dramatically in the fortunes of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which found its circumstances transformed through its ascent to power, and then through the military coup and state repression that followed.3
The Brotherhood first gained unthinkable political power, moving from the margins to the center of political institutions and abandoning the secrecy and caution that had shaped its behavior for decades. It found itself competing not only with liberals and the deep state but also with more ideological Salafists such as the Nour Party, which challenged their Islamic credentials.4
After the coup, the Muslim Brotherhood lost the strong, overt presence in society that had evolved over decades through its elaborate network of social services and a tolerated public presence. While it is difficult to know for certain how much of the Muslim Brotherhood’s underlying support and organizational network remains intact, regime suppression of its formal nongovernmental organization and political apparatus has forced the organization to go underground. Even if the Brotherhood’s social and personal networks have not disappeared, they have been forced to operate under draconian new constraints. The famously disciplined organization is now riven by open struggles over organizational power and political strategy.
Egypt’s experience is often understood as typical of the trajectory of all Islamist parties. It is not. Islamist parties have pursued divergent political trajectories, offering useful snapshots of the new political and institutional situations in which they are now operating, following the failure of the Arab uprisings. This requires a rethinking of long-held conclusions about these parties’ ideology, strategy, and organization.
Egypt’s experience is often understood as typical of the trajectory of all Islamist parties. It is not.
The fate of Egypt’s Brotherhood represents only one path through a complex new set of trials and opportunities for Islamist parties. Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, for example, faced a similar, if less extreme, form of social and political repression as Egypt’s, yet in September 2016 it chose to enter parliamentary elections and performed well.
Tunisia’s Ennahdha Party forged a political alliance with its fiercest rival after voluntarily stepping down from power. In Morocco, Islamist parties such as the Justice and Development Party (PJD) and the Justice and Charity Association (Al-Adl wa al-Ihsan) found ways to work effectively within relatively permissive political environments through strategies of electoral self-limitation, reassurance of rivals, and separation between party and movement.
In Libya and Syria, Islamist parties positioned themselves between secular groups and jihadists within multipolar conflicts.
In Kuwait and Yemen, Islamist parties that had long been part of the countries’ mainstream endured through a period of exclusion before returning to the political game.
The behavior of Islamist parties should be analyzed as pragmatic responses to political conditions shaped by domestic, regional, and intra-Islamist dynamics.5
This new environment affects all political actors, not just Islamists. Too often, Islamist parties are studied in isolation from the broader political field, which can lead to an exaggeration of their strengths or failings.
In an Arab world in transition, all actors are struggling to find effective modes of political action, and all have made bewilderingly bad decisions. The same political turmoil that shaped Islamist behavior also drove the rise of extreme anti-Islamist trends across the Middle East, especially in transitional countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.
Some Islamist parties have done far better in the turbulent politics of the last six years than others. This is not to minimize the complexity and powerful challenges facing many of these Islamist parties in the post-2011 Middle East. Regional and national repression has put immense pressure on Muslim Brotherhood branches in major Arab countries, discredited their ideology, and poisoned their public presence.6
Though many thousands of Egyptian Brotherhood members are in prison, in exile, or dead, an organization that large and deeply rooted is unlikely to simply disappear.
In Egypt and Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood today is virtually unrecognizable—divided, confused, and stripped of most of its established sources of political power.
More successful franchises, such as those in Morocco and Tunisia, seem to be moving away from traditional forms of religious movement organizations in order to remain viable political actors.
The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State upended the ideological and political strategy of mainstream Islamist parties; to angry and mobilized Islamist youths, these conventional parties seemed archaic. Islamic State losses in Iraq and Syria have tarnished its appeal and shattered its image of invincibility, but its defeat will not likely undo the damage done to doctrines of moderation and nonviolence.
Some, but not all, Islamist parties have faced these pressures while undergoing unprecedented challenges to their internal organizational structures and resources, with new cleavages emerging and old ones widening—all at a time when the established leadership is decapitated or at least weakened.
It would be quite premature to write off these Islamist parties and movements. Their deep roots and their demonstrated resilience, even when facing exceptional regime oppression, suggests that they will likely continue to play a critical part in the region’s politics as they have for decades. The fact that Islamist parties in Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia have performed well electorally in the past two years underlines this outlook.
In countries where such parties have fared the worst, such as Egypt, vitally important networks and movements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood still exist on the ground. Though many thousands of Egyptian Brotherhood members are in prison, in exile, or dead, an organization that large and deeply rooted is unlikely to simply disappear.
Historical experience suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood is capable of adapting to its difficulties and regenerating itself. The likely failure of competitors to establish political hegemony or stabilize legitimate new political orders will create new openings. The question is which organizational, political, and ideological characteristics will define this regenerated Muslim Brotherhood—and whether new Islamist parties will replicate old patterns of behavior.
Islamist Parties After the Arab Uprisings
Five years ago, it would have been difficult to foresee that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its counterparts throughout the Arab world would be up against the difficulties they face today. The organization’s ideology, organization, and political strategy seemed relatively stable and predictable, despite the perennial controversies swirling around its ultimate objectives or true nature.
The Muslim Brotherhood had participated effectively in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections and had encountered escalating repression in subsequent years. This generated some degree of solidarity with non-Islamist opposition groups. Jordan’s Islamic Action Front—the political wing of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood—maintained an ongoing, if contested, place as a loyal opposition group. Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated parties also participated in elections in Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, and Yemen. Intellectuals affiliated with the Brotherhood advanced a coherent set of ideas about democracy and nonviolence, appeasing political partners across the region. By way of contrast with al-Qaeda’s violent extremism, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to put forward a very different philosophy, strategy, and rhetoric.
Several core characteristics typically defined the political presence of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in the decades before the Arab uprisings:
- They typically had a tightly hierarchical and structured organization that imposed a high degree of ideological and behavioral conformity on their members.
- They had a significant public presence, even where they were officially banned, with elaborate social service networks and a strong political and media presence.
- They adopted an ideology of centrism (wasatiyya), which informed their political practice and religious doctrine and referred to a common set of public intellectuals and thinkers.
- They participated in elections wherever the opportunity presented itself—from those for student unions to those for national parliaments—and typically did quite well.
- They espoused a doctrine of nonviolence by which they sought to differentiate themselves from al-Qaeda, reassure Western governments, and protect themselves from state repression.
- And while they often spoke out on and rallied around salient regional issues such as Palestine, in practice they accepted the nation-state and prioritized national political goals over transnational commitments.
The most profound changes since 2011 can be seen in Egypt, where none of these core characteristics still exists. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood no longer has a strong overt presence in society or an elaborate public network of social services. Its organization now faces internal opposition. The nonviolence it espoused is being questioned by its own members. Its dispersed leadership is less able to exercise control. And the Brotherhood can no longer contest elections.
Elsewhere, Islamist organizations have adapted differently to the new challenges. Some have retained most of the institutional forms and political strategies they had before the 2011 uprisings, while others have jettisoned or altered some of their key characteristics to preserve their overall political and social position. Among Islamist groups the choices have varied. Some have survived repression and chosen to return to political life. Others have engaged in post-Islamist politics by allowing themselves to be co-opted by regimes. Yet others have fought in civil wars or have sought to demonstrate their value to Arab regimes.
Marc Lynch, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Middle East Program
1 For recent discussions of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s turmoil, see Ashraf El-Sherif, “The Muslim Brotherhood and the Future of Political Islam in Egypt,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 2014; Sherif, “The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Failures,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 1, 2014, http://goo.gl/U5KhXd; Eric Trager, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2016).
2 Author interview with Rached al-Ghannouchi, Tunis, August 23, 2016.
3 Mokhtar Awad, “No End in Sight,” Cipher Brief, August 12, 2016, https:/www.thecipherbrief.com/article/middle-east/no-end-sight .
4 Stephane Lacroix, “Egypt’s Pragmatic Salafis: The Politics of Hizb al-Nour,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/11/01/egypt-s-pragmatic-salafis-politics-of-hizb-al-nour-pub-64902.
5 Khalil al-Anani, “The Muslim Brotherhood in the Regional Balance” (in Arabic), Al-Araby al-Jadeed, March 10, 2015, https://goo.gl/J3KnsA.
6 Usama Abu Rashid, “The Crisis of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Implications” (in Arabic), Al-Araby al-Jadeed, December 17, 2015, https://goo.gl/dDdxYY.
7 Aaron Magid, “Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood Comes in From the Cold,” Middle East Eye, June 21, 2016, http://goo.gl/1LnZIk.
To be continued