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.
Surviving Repression and Returning to Politics
Two Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, those in Jordan and Kuwait, have faced considerable pressure from their respective regimes. After repeatedly boycotting elections, they concluded that this strategy only further marginalized them and chose to return to political life.
In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front was for years at the forefront of political participation by Islamist movements in the region. It took part in several parliamentary elections after 1989, in which it stood as the leading opposition party, and boycotted others over complaints of regime manipulation of the electoral system. However, the decision to boycott elections in 2013 divided the movement, with some of its leaders seeking a more confrontational stance and others pushing to align more closely with the regime.
The Jordanian government exploited such rifts within the established Muslim Brotherhood to sponsor the creation of a new Brotherhood organization, while confiscating the assets and revoking the legal status of the old one. In June 2016, the Islamic Action Front, despite such pressures, announced it would contest the parliamentary elections scheduled for September, ending years of electoral boycotts.7
It did so by placing candidates on multiple electoral lists and calibrated its political message to downplay Islamist slogans in favor of broad alliances. Though the overall turnout was low, the Muslim Brotherhood won sixteen seats in the 130-member parliament.
In Kuwait, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, the Islamic Constitutional Movement, had long participated in parliamentary elections and enjoyed a prominent role in political life. More recently, it had been eclipsed by Salafist parties on the Islamist spectrum.
The growing autocracy in Kuwait and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries had taken a further toll on the Islamic Constitutional Movement’s political participation. It boycotted parliamentary elections in 2012 and 2013. In May 2016, however, the party announced that it intended to participate in the next round of parliamentary elections. It performed well in the one held on November 26, 2016, winning four out of five seats as the broader opposition won nearly half of the seats.
Its leaders explained its return to participating in elections in practical terms. The boycott had allowed parliament to pass a series of retrograde laws and had distanced the movement from Kuwaiti society.
The Islamic Constitutional Movement’s resilience and adaptability affirmed its normality within the Kuwaiti political system, as well as the ability of Kuwaiti politics to resist pressure directed against the Muslim Brotherhood from more powerful GCC partners.
Playing Post-Islamist Politics
Other Islamist groups have opted to engage in a form of post-Islamist politics by allowing themselves to be co-opted by regimes. In Morocco, the PJD has done so enthusiastically, thriving in government by accepting the constraints of a monarchical system.8 Rather than repress, the monarchy invited the PJD to contest elections, and then allowed it to form a government under its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane. The party has experienced both the benefits and costs of governmental authority in a system effectively run by the palace.9 Its strategy, as the scholar Mohammed Masbah elegantly described it, involved “playing by the monarchy’s rules, but without fully aligning itself with the palace.”10
The PJD found itself taking on significant responsibility, without much power to actually do anything. It gained significant opportunities for patronage and institutional entrenchment in the political system, particularly at the local level, but lost credibility among Islamist sectors of society to the benefit of its Islamist rival Al-Adl wa al-Ihsan. For all the frustrations with the lack of real political change, the value of predictability for Islamist parties was visible, as the PJD found it fairly easy to operate in a system with which it was familiar. It seized opportunities that did not fundamentally challenge the existing political order.11
The PJD’s political strategy paid off in October 2016, when it once again won a plurality in the parliamentary elections—winning 125 seats against 102 for its anti-Islamist rival, the Authenticity and Modernity Party—and was invited to form a new government.
Some Islamist groups have opted to engage in a form of post-Islamist politics by allowing themselves to be co-opted by regimes.
In Tunisia as well, the main Islamist organization, Ennahdha, sought to transform its role amid changing circumstances after it took power in 2011. Ennahdha’s trajectory has often been compared favorably to that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Whereas former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi refused to compromise, leading the Brotherhood to disaster, Ghannouchi, Ennahdha’s leader, found a path toward consensus allowing for the consolidation of a tenuous democratic transition.
Ennahdha’s decision to voluntarily surrender power in the face of political crisis seems a sharp rebuke of the view that Islamists in power would never agree to step down. The pursuit of political consensus brought the party into a surprising de facto alliance with its former archrival Nidaa Tounes, which had come to power on an intensely anti-Islamist platform, achieving some political stability at the expense of calls for more rapid political change.
Ennahdha’s political realignments were responses to particular political threats and opportunities. For all its efforts to reassure Tunisians and engage in consensus building while in power during the early postrevolutionary period, Ennahdha had faced polarization and suspicion almost as intense as did Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Tunisia’s military and security establishment was neither as powerful nor as entrenched as Egypt’s, but Ennahdha had to deal with a non-Islamist civil society that was much stronger and well-institutionalized. That is why, in May 2016, the Ennahdha Party Congress voted to separate the political party from the social movement, a step that followed a similar evolution by Morocco’s PJD. The practical implications of this separation remain uncertain, as Ennahdha has yet to contest an election under the new arrangement.
In Algeria, the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated party, had to work within an environment deeply shaped by the bloody civil war of the 1990s. The MSP’s accommodating attitude toward the regime was rooted in the traumas of the military coup that followed Islamist electoral victories during the early 1990s and the conflict that ensued. As the acceptable face of political Islam under a violently anti-Islamist regime, the MSP endorsed the regime-led political process and agreed to serve in several governments.
The Arab uprisings complicated this by empowering those determined to unsettle, if not overturn, the stagnant political system within which the MSP had found a comfortable place. The party moved to reposition itself as a more independent actor in January 2015, ahead of the anticipated Algerian presidential transition.12
This signaled an intention to contest parliamentary elections while also reaching out to the opposition, which viewed the MSP as thoroughly co-opted by the regime and hardly an opposition party at all.
Some Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated parties have adjusted to new political environments by remaining committed to a strategy of electoral participation.
These cases all reveal Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated parties adjusting to new political environments by remaining committed to a strategy of electoral participation. Unlike the Egyptian case, these parties survived new pressures and took advantage of new opportunities. Their successes must be weighed against the failures of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood when evaluating the performance and future of Islamist movements.
Fighting in Civil Wars
A third path adopted by Islamist groups outside of Egypt was to redefine themselves by engaging in conflict as part of broader coalitions. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood took an active part in the early organization of the Syrian uprising. As a favored Qatari and Turkish partner, the Brotherhood played a leading role in the Syrian National Council and in many of the Turkey-based operations of the Syrian opposition.
The Muslim Brotherhood lacked a significant presence inside Syria due to then president Hafez al-Assad’s fierce repression of the organization after its conflict with the regime in 1982. However, it did have a major external presence, which served it well in the international diplomacy surrounding the 2011 uprising.
As the protests in Syria turned into an armed insurgency, in which more radical jihadi groups came to the fore, the Syrian Brotherhood found itself in a difficult position. It struggled to sustain a moderate Islamism in an ever more jihadi environment, even as those jihadi movements adopted the traditional Brotherhood tactics of providing social services and governance.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood benefited from Qatari and Turkish patronage while being targeted by Saudi Arabia’s allies within rebel organizations because of the kingdom’s hostility toward Muslim Brotherhood organizations.13
Some Islamist groups have opted to engage in a form of post-Islamist politics by allowing themselves to be co-opted by regimes.
In Libya, the country’s Muslim Brotherhood was one of the many actors that came together in the loosely organized opposition coalition aligned against Muammar Qaddafi. In the post-Qaddafi period, it used its access to Qatari and Turkish financial, media, military, and political assistance to carve out a powerful role for itself. While the Muslim Brotherhood underperformed in the first Libyan elections, it became deeply entrenched in emergent local power centers. It also became a key target, and actor, in the divided Libyan political scene that followed Qaddafi’s fall.
It struggled to sustain a coherent political and social position, caught between the rise of jihadi trends and an anti-Islamist offensive backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The rising threat of the Islamic State allowed it to regain some traction by positioning itself within the opposing coalition and on the side of the internationally backed Government of National Accord.
Polarization remains intense, however, as does suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood among backers of the House of Representatives, the legislature elected in 2014, and General Khalifa Hifter’s Dignity camp.
In Palestinian areas, Hamas, while operating within a very different institutional context and embodying a very different history of both governance and violence, also found itself caught up amid these changes. Regional politics profoundly constrained its ability to govern the Gaza Strip or mobilize support among the broader Palestinian public.
Even during the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, Cairo did little to ease the blockade of Gaza. Since the coup, the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has cooperated closely with Israel in reinforcing the cordon around the territory and has loudly identified Hamas, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, as an enemy. The Syrian civil war emptied the so-called Axis of Resistance (which brought together Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria) of its political value and cost Hamas its base in Damascus.14
Quiet rapprochement between Israel and many Arab regimes, driven in part by shared opposition to the U.S.-led nuclear agreement with Iran, increased the financial and political pressures on Hamas. As part of its efforts to adapt to the new situation, in April 2016 the organization announced that it had formally severed its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Demonstrating Value to Regional Powers
A fourth path adopted by Islamist groups has been to avoid pressure by engaging in action on behalf of regional powers. Yemen’s Islah Party participated fully in the uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in 2011–2012, and later found a comfortable place within the Saudi-led military coalition against the Houthi rebels.
It avoided the broader Gulf crackdown on Islamists by making itself a player in the regional proxy wars, moving smoothly between alliances in a turbulent political field contested by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Islah itself is a broad coalition, including not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also more extreme Salafi and jihadi networks alongside non-Islamist groupings.
After being pushed aside during the regional push against the Muslim Brotherhood, Islah rebuilt its bridges to Saudi Arabia and occupied a central place in the Saudi-led coalition.
The diversity of their experiences should mitigate against any simplistic conclusions about Islamist parties or movements.
In Bahrain, unlike in most of the other GCC states where Islamist parties have represented a political threat, the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliate, al-Minbar, fit comfortably into the regime’s sectarian ruling strategy.
By mobilizing Sunni support for the regime against the country’s Shia majority, al-Minbar made itself indispensable to a fragile monarchy, even at the height of the anti-Islamist regional campaign.15 This sectarian role offered it protection from the regional crackdown, despite Bahrain’s deep dependence on Saudi Arabia.
The diversity of these experiences should mitigate against any simplistic conclusions about Islamist parties or movements. Islamists continue to participate in political systems in which they have the opportunity to do so, but they have also squandered a great deal of the political capital they accumulated during decades of social outreach and opposition politics.
The Egyptian Experience and the Brotherhood Reaction
The experience of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is central to that of Brotherhood organizations elsewhere in the Middle East. Both the successes and setbacks of the Egyptian Brotherhood defined national and regional constellations of opportunity and constraint for Muslim Brotherhoods in other countries. Before the Arab uprisings, Brotherhood organizations in the region were independent but typically looked to Cairo for guidance and support.
The sudden, shocking fall of Egypt’s Brotherhood from power in 2013 upended its long-established relationship with these other national organizations. The later choices of these Islamists were made in a context shaped by interactions across domestic, regional, and intra-Islamist domains—interactions embodied by what had happened in Egypt and its repercussions.
The Domestic Domain
Domestically, the Arab uprisings dramatically disrupted long-established political patterns for some Islamist parties—first by opening up pathways to real power and then by forcibly shutting them down. The initial political openings of 2011 were more destabilizing to Islamists than the subsequent, more familiar, repression.
Islamist parties had long operated within political institutions in which they accepted that they could not actually come to power.16 The overthrow of then presidents Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia dramatically removed that cap on their aspirations.
The surge of popular mobilization allowed national Muslim Brotherhood organizations to win unprecedented power in elections in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. Brotherhood affiliates also played key roles in opposition coalitions in Libya, Syria, and Yemen that enjoyed significant Western support.
The initial political openings of 2011 were more destabilizing to Islamists than the subsequent, more familiar, repression.
As Brotherhood organizations adapted to changing domestic and regional circumstances, their politically successful moves were overshadowed by the catastrophic failure of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to succeed in its transition. After Mubarak’s fall, the Egyptian Brotherhood quickly benefited from unprecedented legal recognition and, ultimately, a degree of formal institutional power.17 But it struggled not only with the suspicion of non-Islamist political forces and the entrenched power of a fiercely hostile military but also with the new political challenge of an unleashed Salafi movement.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s rapid rise to power through parliamentary and presidential elections triggered a fierce backlash. An organization that had long cultivated a reputation for honesty suddenly found itself the object of deep distrust, alienated from a society it had spent decades trying to shape in its own image. Within six months of Mohamed Morsi’s election as president, most of the political class had coalesced into the National Salvation Front, which was established in December 2012 with the specific aim of toppling him from power.
Few would dispute that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood made poor decisions during the post-2011 transition. It was not, however, the only group that was perfidious and incompetent, let alone unique in its political failure during that tortuous period. Every political actor in Egypt made disastrous decisions at the time, deploying extreme and dehumanizing rhetoric and resorting to violence. Egypt’s military ruled disastrously from February 2011 to June 2012, infuriating the political class, seeking to monopolize power, and using force against protesters. The National Salvation Front moved directly toward demanding Morsi’s overthrow rather than seeking, first, to alter the president’s policies. Activists repeatedly misread the political climate, and then fatefully aligned with the military in Morsi’s removal, paving the way for their own repression and marginalization.
That is why focusing on explaining the unique failures of the Muslim Brotherhood by exploring its organizational or ideological pathologies is misguided. The political environment in Egypt was one of deep institutional uncertainty. In the two years after Mubarak’s overthrow, the Brotherhood sought an accommodation with the military, which it viewed as the most powerful competitor for power, at the expense of the divided activist sector. Many activists chose to do the same in 2013, to equally disastrous effect.
Egypt’s military coup shattered the Muslim Brotherhood in ways that have left the organization a fundamentally different political entity.
The crucial presidential election of May–June 2012 took place in the absence of a new constitution, meaning that voters and candidates did not know what powers an elected president would wield. The judiciary dissolved parliament shortly before the election, creating a legislative void, while at the same time the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the representative body of the military, sought to retain key powers. The machinations of the intelligence and security agencies, along with the judiciary, and the fear that they would manipulate or overturn the results weighed heavily on all calculations. Similar institutional fears lay behind Morsi’s most notorious political gambit, the “power grab” of late November 2012, in which he claimed unfettered power to pass a new constitution without judicial review by what he viewed as profoundly politicized Egyptian courts.
Egypt’s military coup shattered the Muslim Brotherhood in ways that have left the organization a fundamentally different political entity.18 The Brotherhood’s Egyptian leadership has by and large been neutralized.
The organization is now divided between multiple power centers within Egypt and abroad.19 However, the repression of the Egyptian Brotherhood is not historically unique. Egyptian, Syrian, and Tunisian Muslim Brotherhoods had all survived scorched-earth crackdowns in previous decades, and they returned to play key political roles when conditions changed. Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has been divided and stripped of its key institutional foundations. It was when they faced the determination of several Gulf states to criminalize the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization that long-standing Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, including Hamas and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, announced their separation from the parent organization.
The post-coup political environment in Egypt went beyond state repression. The polarization of public opinion around the question of Islamism badly undermined the Muslim Brotherhood’s careful positioning. It became difficult to occupy the center when there was no center. The profound sense of injustice felt by many Muslim Brotherhood members over the coup and the crackdown that followed undermined even the normative value of occupying this center. The seemingly widespread Egyptian public turn against the Brotherhood, undoing in a moment what the organization had spent decades building, raised even more profound strategic and political questions.
Islamist parties appear to do best when they operate within clearly defined institutional rules.
Islamist parties appear to do best when they operate within clearly defined institutional rules, though some national branches have proven more flexible than others when the rules suddenly changed. Self-limiting strategies, such as those pursued by Ennahdha under the guidance of Rached Ghannouchi, typically require far greater concessions than might be dictated by the objective balance of power. Even explicit, consistent efforts at reassurance face resistance over the fears—long stoked by regime media and hostile propaganda—that Islamists provoke among others about their ultimate intentions.
Savvier leaders have accepted that Islamist movements face a higher burden of proof with non-Islamist audiences at home and abroad, and they seek to reassure rather than insist on narratives of persecution and martyrdom. However, this does not mean abandoning hopes for power or self-interest. Such strategies of reassurance and collaboration can often secure partisan interests more effectively than maximalist ones.
Islamist parties have considerable experience with playing the long game and will likely find it easier than many anticipate to adjust to the hostile conditions in post-uprising Arab countries.
Marc Lynch, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Middle East Program
8 Avi Spiegel, “Succeeding by Surviving: Examining the Durability of Political Islam in Morocco,” Brookings Institution, August 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Morocco_Spiegel-FINALE.pdf.
9 Esen Kirdiş, “Between Movement and Party: Islamic Movements in Morocco and the Decision to Enter Party Politics,” Politics, Religion & Ideology 16, no. 1 (2015): 65–86.
10 Mohammed Masbah, “His Majesty’s Islamists: The Moroccan Experience,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 23, 2015, http://goo.gl/KwSVup.
11 Anouar Boukhars, “Morocco’s Islamists: Bucking the Trend?,” FRIDE, June 6, 2014, http://goo.gl/INEfWt.
12 Dalia Ghanem-Yazbek, “The Future of Algeria’s Main Islamist Party,” Carnegie Middle East Center, April 14, 2015, http://goo.gl/ELyDZa.
13 Stéphane Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood Predicament,” Washington Post, March 20, 2014, http://goo.gl/BK8mbn.
14 “Light at the End of Their Tunnels?: Hamas and the Arab Uprisings,” Middle East & North Africa Report no. 129, International Crisis Group, August 14, 2012, http://goo.gl/uTni9Z; Nathan Thrall, “Hamas’s Chances,” London Review of Books 36, no. 16 (August 21, 2014): http://goo.gl/Ir7SPv.
15 Giorgio Cafiero, “What Bahrain’s Opposition Crackdown Means for Country’s Brotherhood,” Al-Monitor, June 27, 2016, available at http://goo.gl/MMKVvr.
16 Nathan J. Brown, When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, d2013).
17 Ahmed Abd Ribhu, “The Muslim Brotherhood After Five Years” (in Arabic), Al-Shorouk, January 16, 2016, http://goo.gl/PpWzYk.
18 Nevin Massad, “The Muslim Brotherhood and the Changing Regional Scene,” Al-Malaf al-Masri 19 (Cairo, Egypt: Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, March 2016).
19 Victor J. Willi, “Phoenix Rising From the Ashes?: The Internal State of Affairs of the Muslim Brotherhood at the Start of 2016,” Jadaliyya, January 25, 2016, http://goo.gl/JiFH8.
To be continued