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.
The Regional Domain
The Muslim Brotherhood has also become more deeply implicated in regional power politics than in previous eras. Brotherhood organizations are more transnationalized, more dependent on state
Party Versus Movement
Few recent developments in the Islamist spectrum have drawn as much positive notice as the decision of Tunisia’s Ennahdha to separate its political party from its religious movement and rebrand itself the “Muslim democrats,” a term used by Ghannouchi himself.52
This bold move reshaped the Islamist political field in fascinating ways, winning approval from Gulf regimes and local audiences typically hostile to Islamism, while attracting close study by other Islamists.
However, Ennahdha’s move was not as novel as it initially appeared. Other Islamist parties had also worried about coexistence between the religious and social facets of their organizations and the more limited, practical agenda inherent in their identities as political parties. Some attempted to respond to pressures from other parties and civil society to firmly demarcate where Islamist movements ended and political parties began. Critics complained that the parties’ claim to represent Islam gave them an unfair advantage with religious voters.
Islamists themselves largely rejected these arguments on both ideological and strategic grounds, preferring to enjoy the electoral benefits of a large public outreach apparatus over assuaging the mistrust of their political rivals.
Previous efforts to resolve the tension between party and movement by forming nominally independent political parties rarely produced genuinely distinct bodies. Jordan’s Islamic Action Front remained mostly indistinguishable from its parent organization, as did the Freedom and Justice Party from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Ghannouchi and other Ennahdha leaders approvingly cited the precedent of Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, the first to separate a nominally Islamist political party organizationally and programmatically from its religious movement. The PJD was also the most successful of the Islamist parties at finding a place at the center of national politics.
Few recent developments in the Islamist spectrum have drawn as much positive notice as the decision of Tunisia’s Ennahdha to separate its political party from its religious movement.
The gambit to separate party and movement is an “old and recurring debate,” notes scholar Khalil el-Anani, but one that in previous periods was typically resolved in favor of continued integration.53 However, the initial promise of genuine democracy after the 2011 uprisings and then the rigors of failed transitions gave more impetus to the idea. Ennahdha’s dramatic and highly publicized move to separate those functions took on greater significance in the transitional context, with scholar Khaled al-Hroub calling it “one of the most important steps in the evolution of political Islam since its creation.”54
With such a separation, Ennahdha could in principle lose the ability to draw on the movement’s social services and resources. But it also gained by being able to recruit from a broader base, adopt positions outside of traditional Islamist concerns, and more easily enter into alliances with non-Islamist actors.
The new push was largely pragmatic, rooted in a recognition that the traditional approach of putting the movement at the service of electoral politics had manifestly failed. This pragmatism meant that the separation will, at least initially, prove as enduring as the new configuration is successful. Ennahdha has yet to go to the polls since its reinvention as a political party. Should its gamble fail to pay off, pressure to reintegrate with the movement would likely resurface.55
In Jordan, some Muslim Brotherhood leaders believe a similar separation between party and movement would relieve the relentless pressure on the organization by the regime.56
The Islamic Action Front, one of the earliest and most successful of the Muslim Brotherhood political parties, had never really separated in any meaningful sense from the broader movement. The veteran Islamist journalist Hilmi al-Asmar has argued that in the new political climate “the duality of the ‘party and the jamaa’ [group] made these [Islamist] parties ineffective.”57 Such assessments, however, have not yet led to any final decisions.
Even Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has joined the debate in search of a possible way out of its predicament.58
On May 7, 2016, the High Administrative Committee of the Egyptian Brotherhood publicly circulated a road map to save the organization through new internal elections.59 Acknowledging the realities of deep internal splits and the failure of previous initiatives, the committee proposed immediate new elections to all Brotherhood offices and the convening of a new Shura Council in June. However, little came of it.
This occurred only two months after Amr Darrag, a leading figure in the post-coup Muslim Brotherhood, proposed the separation of the political party from the religious movement as a step in the organization’s political rehabilitation.60
In the context of the internal debate over the restructuring of the Muslim Brotherhood, Darrag suggested separating its political and religious work and promising to refrain from political mobilization for a specific period of time, as a prerequisite for a regime de-escalation against the organization. To date, none of these initiatives has amounted to much, but the debate continues to simmer as Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members search for an effective strategy.
Such a separation seems much more difficult in Egypt than in Tunisia, both because of the political context and the particular experiences of the respective Brotherhood movements. Few Egyptians will quickly forget the experience of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, including its active use of Brotherhood social services to win votes during the 2011 and 2012 elections. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been so deeply engaged in politics over the past fifteen years that the overlap between its activities has become central to the organization’s identity, structure, and practice.
It seems unlikely that angry young Brotherhood members—traumatized by intense regime repression, torture, and mass killing— would accept separating the party from the movement. At any rate, the Egyptian regime shows little sign of welcoming a Brotherhood return to public life. It has, instead, intensified its confiscation of Brotherhood assets and its labeling the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
The idea of separating party from movement has been clearly established as a viable model for Islamist organizations, even if it seems problematic in Egypt. The enthusiastic reception of Ennahdha’s decision by commentators aligned with the hostile United Arab Emirates signaled the possibilities in such a course for embattled Islamists.
What a separation would look like in practice, how it would affect the electoral prospects of Islamist organizations, whether their membership would be willing to accept such a separation, and whether Islamists could overcome the suspicions of non-Islamists will all be major questions in the coming period.
The question of whether Muslim Brotherhood organizations become more moderate when given the opportunity to participate in democratic politics once structured much of the political science debate over Islamist movements.61 Yet the debate has always been a frustrating one. An organization can be very moderate in its political demands while deeply radical in its cultural and social vision. The positions of the various Muslim Brotherhoods may be extreme in relation to Western values, but are quite mainstream in relation to the values of their own countries.62
Participation in the formal political process has long been a key marker of the mainstream aspirations of Brotherhood organizations. Even the not infrequent Islamist party electoral boycotts were typically framed as a critique of anti-democratic practices by regimes rather than as a rejection of democratic principles. It should come as little surprise, then, that Islamist parties across the region have continued to contest parliamentary elections even after facing extreme duress.
The idea of separating party from movement has been clearly established as a viable model for Islamist organizations.
Egypt, again, is a problematic outlier in the broader Islamist field in this regard. Nor does the Egyptian experience after 2011 offer definitive lessons. The democratic opening was extremely short and took place in the absence of settled constitutional or institutional rules. Democratic inclusion produced wildly erratic behavior by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and by all other political actors.
The Egyptian uprising triggered a profound weakening of the state, introducing enormous uncertainty into previously stable institutions. Elections and attempted governance took place in the absence of a new constitution and during a period of rapid and intense social polarization as well as considerable meddling by external actors with a stake in the outcome.
The competing pulls of ambition and fear under conditions of profound uncertainty seemed to better explain the Muslim Brotherhood’s “impetuous rush to power” at the time.63
The autocratic retrenchment of the last few years in Egypt likely means that there will be few opportunities for democratic inclusion in the foreseeable future.64 However, political inclusion can take many forms, as can repression, and each of them may have a distinctive impact on organizational identity and behavior.
There is a vast difference between participation in semiauthoritarian parliaments, where real governing power is never really at stake, and participation in truly democratic systems, where victory and governance become possibilities. Inclusion in the former may promote more moderate policy goals simply because of the limits of possible action, while participation in the latter can heighten aspirations for radical change. But alternative causal chains are also possible.
Authoritarian inclusion could promote radical rhetoric because talk is cheap and will never need to be redeemed. Democratic inclusion could encourage caution for fear of alienating centrist voters.
In short, it has always made more sense to talk about specific forms of inclusion producing specific types of moderation. Authoritarian inclusion seems to have produced a pragmatic, centrist discourse and behavior in Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, while democratic inclusion did the same for Tunisia’s Ennahdha Party.
Elections played multiple roles in the strategy of participation. Even when the Muslim Brotherhood knew that it could not win, participation was seen as a vehicle for outreach to the public. Brotherhood organizations also typically worked to establish commanding positions within civil society.
Universities were a key terrain for political contestation and training. Professional associations became bastions of Islamist power.
Parliamentary blocs, even when unable to enact significant legislation, provided an opportunity to put a spotlight on government abuses and sustain a public presence. Winning governing power was not necessary for this approach—and, indeed, would have placed uncomfortable demands on the Muslim Brotherhood to fulfill demands made from a position of opposition. This long game was disrupted by the rapid political changes that took place starting in 2011.65
It is striking how consistently Brotherhood parties have opted for electoral participation, across many different political systems and despite widely varying degrees of repression. Islamist parties that chose to boycott elections at certain times have generally returned to contest elections later. These parties have repeated this pattern in the years since the Arab uprisings. As impossible as it seems today, it would not be a surprise if even Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood were to return to electoral politics in a few years’ time, once conditions have changed.
Violence and Extremism
The changing political context after the Arab uprisings has also affected Islamist arguments and doctrines about violence.66 The mainstreaming of violence across the region since Egypt’s coup and the escalation of the Syrian insurgency has fundamentally challenged the logic of nonviolence that governed Muslim Brotherhood practice during previous decades.67
While considering the question of violence, one Egyptian Brotherhood member, Hazem Said, reframed the mantra of the party’s general guide, that “our nonviolence is more powerful than bullets.” Said argued that for the Muslim Brotherhood, nonviolence was a tactic rather than a core ideological principle. Jihad, in turn, was a core principle, and at times had to be pursued by the sword.
The right question was when to be nonviolent and to what end.68 While this represented the views of only one member, it is striking that such conversations are now unfolding in public.
This highlights one of the potential dangers of pragmatic reasoning. Where previously nonviolence had been an effective way of seizing the center and reassuring dubious non-Islamists, the new regional environment seems to valorize and even demand violence.
As the Syrian insurgency spiked in 2013, jihadi theories and violent practices, which had previously been anathema, came to be openly supported and even praised across many Arab media and social media platforms.
At the same time, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood sought to replicate its traditional centrism within this violent environment, making greater efforts than most other Islamist organizations to engage with non-Islamists, reassure minorities, and demonstrate moderation to the West. Still, by 2015, many Arab regimes had returned to cracking down on open advocacy of jihadi ideas, not only due to pressure from the United States but also because they began to perceive the potential threat such movements posed to their own security.
The regional and Islamist landscape has changed so radically over the past few years that it is unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood could play a firewall role against violent extremism even if it still wanted to do so. Instead, the growing violence of national and regional politics and the degradation of democratic and nonviolent alternatives are quite likely to push the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ideas in more extreme directions.69
Brotherhood views of the use of violence have changed over the past few years for both normative and practical reasons. The traumatic experiences after the 2013 coup had a searing impact on many younger members.70
Where previously nonviolence had been an effective way of seizing the center and reassuring dubious non-Islamists, the new environment seems to valorize and even demand violence.
Nonviolence appears to have failed as a strategy, while those using violence seem to be gaining traction across the region.71 The principle of nonviolence is more difficult to sustain as nonviolent Islamists suffer repression while wars rage in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The perceived superiority of the jihadi model rested in part on its own demonstrated success in comparison to the failed mainstream movements.
The Islamic State’s model was appealing because it demonstrated the advantages of violence for capturing territory, establishing governance, and dominating the public arena. Its steady losses and the prospect of military defeat in Libya, Iraq, and Syria and diminish the allure of this message, but the resilience of al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadi networks over the past fifteen years suggests that the core jihadi narrative has put down deep roots.
Conclusion: The Future of Islamist Politics
The travails of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood do not mean that Islamism has faded from the scene. Islamist movements have survived earlier moments of harsh state repression. Despite decades of intense harassment, Tunisia’s Ennahdha prevailed to win electoral power within less than a year of former president Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali’s overthrow.
Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood survived near eradication by the Assad regime to take a key role in opposition institutions that emerged after the 2011 uprising. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood withstood the fierce crackdown by then president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in the 1950s and 1960s. It seems likely that the Brotherhood will once again return from the current crisis.
However, its return will likely be in a very different form. The Muslim Brotherhood that emerged in Egypt in the 1970s after then president Anwar al-Sadat’s political opening looked very different than the organization of the previous decades. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood developed differently in exile during the 1990s and 2000s than did Brotherhood organizations that remained active under authoritarian regimes. Tunisia’s Ennahdha evolved dramatically during the decades of Ben Ali’s repression, in ways that were manifested in its behavior and rhetoric during the post-2011 transition.
Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood became one of the most forward-looking Islamist political parties during the kingdom’s democratic heyday of the early 1990s, but it then degenerated into a retrograde, divided, and marginalized organization after decades of escalating persecution.
The travails of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood do not mean that Islamism has faded from the scene.
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.
The current environment is highly unfavorable to the Brotherhood’s traditional model and welcoming to its Islamist rivals. The Islamist impulse has hardly been subdued by the failures of the Egyptian Brotherhood. Instead, the center of gravity has shifted toward Salafi and jihadi networks offering harder, less accommodating versions of Islamism.
While the Muslim Brotherhood’s nonviolence and democratic participation defined the Islamist mainstream for decades, this may now be better embodied in Syria, and for many Sunnis in the Gulf, by the highly sectarian Salafi-jihadism of Ahrar al-Sham.
Islamists have tentatively begun to debate these new political realities and to rethink their ideologies and strategies. Those debates, many of them on semipublic social media platforms and websites, offer a vital glimpse into their collective effort to understand and adapt. However, they have made only limited progress toward articulating a new consensus.
For Egyptian Brotherhood members, the ordeals of 2013 remain too painful and vivid, and the current lines of division too intense. For Moroccans, Tunisians, and many others, the demands of local politics have consumed the attention of Islamist groups. And in war zones such as Libya and Syria, the exigencies of the conflicts and the pull of more extreme ideologies have often seemed overwhelming.
This environment places an ever greater burden on Islamist parties to engage in strategies of reassurance and preemptive concessions, even as they seek viable new positions in the political and social landscape. The most successful Islamist parties seem to be those that have found an accommodation with new national and regional political conditions, which means working within, rather than fundamentally challenging, existing political institutions. Reform—or at least inclusion—has trumped revolution.
Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, Yemen’s Islah, Tunisia’s Ennahdha, and Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement have all found ways to adapt to new national, regional, and intra-Islamist conditions. They have done so by reassuring other groups about their intentions and acting with self-restraint, credibly committing to working within the system and not seeking domination. Even Ennahdha’s much-celebrated separation of the party from the movement will likely matter more in this national and regional contest of perceptions than it will on the ground.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faces a more difficult road than most of its peers. The intensity of the polarization between 2011 and 2013, the extreme ferocity that followed the military coup, and the regime’s relentless campaign against the Brotherhood have hardened views about the organization.
It has thus far proven unable to find a way back into the political system, or even to reach internal agreement over discovering one. It has also been unable to reassure a hostile Egyptian public or build new political alliances, even as elite criticism of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime mounts.
Initiatives to overcome the Muslim Brotherhood’s unprecedented internal divisions through elections and organizational restructuring have thus far been unsuccessful. Internal dialogues have yet to produce a consensus over a political strategy or key ideological questions about violence and political participation.
For now, the Brotherhood is likely to remain consumed by these rifts, isolated from the brittle but authoritarian Egyptian political system. The center of Islamist politics—as with regional politics more broadly—may swing away from Egypt.
The future of Islamist politics will likely be driven more by the evolution of political institutions than by the ideological particularities of Islamists. Islamist parties adapt to local and regional realities, becoming violent in civil wars and becoming democratic when presented with the opportunity to contest elections.
The Arab uprisings offered an opening for the unprecedented political inclusion of Islamist parties. The authoritarian backlash after the failure of those transitions now risks pushing Islamist movements away from democratic participation and toward mobilization against political systems.
The constituencies mobilized by Islamist movements have not disappeared. The challenge posed by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda demonstrates the desperate need for rebuilding effective firewalls against radicalization.
Whether Islamist parties can adapt to these challenges will depend on if they can generate compelling new political strategies and ideological positions that align with the rapidly shifting domestic, regional, and intra-Islamist arenas; reassure non-Islamist skeptics; and effectively counter the appeal of more violent and radical Islamist trends.
Marc Lynch, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Middle East Program
52 Rached al-Ghannouchi, “From Political Islam to Muslim Democracy,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 5 (September/October 2016): 58–75.
53 Khalil el-Anani, “The Predicament of the Brotherhood Between Politics and Daawa” (in Arabic), Al-Araby al-Jadeed, June 8, 2016, https://goo.gl/Yp2leP.
54 Khaled al-Hroub, “Tunisia’s Ennahda and Its Transformations: A New Democratic Islam?,” Al-Hayat, May 22, 2016.
55 Author interviews with several high-ranking Ennahdha officials, Tunis, August 22–23, 2016.
56 Mohammad Abu Rumman, “What After the Ikhwan?” (in Arabic), Al-Ghad, December 31, 2015, http://goo.gl/0kw56V.
57 Quoted by Osama al-Sharif, Al-Monitor, January 14, 2016.
58 Khalil al-Anani, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Faces a Choice: Religion or Politics?,” Washington Post, June 20, 2016, http://goo.gl/JNhAJ3.
59 Reform blueprint available http://ikhwanonline.info.
60 Amr Darrag, “Political Reviews Between Daawa and Party” (in Arabic), Arabi21, March 12, 2016, http://goo.gl/PHV3wC.
61 Jillian Schwedler, “Can Islamists Become Moderates?: Rethinking the Inclusion-Moderation Hypothesis,” World Politics 63, no. 2 (2011): 347–76.
62 Jillian Schwedler, “Why Academics Can’t Get Beyond Moderates and Radicals,” Washington Post, February 12, 2015, http://goo.gl/8Oe3Se.
63 Khalil al-Anani, “Upended Path: The Rise and Fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” Middle East Journal 69, no. 4 (2015): 527–43.
64 Nathan J. Brown and Michele Dunne, “Unprecedented Pressures, Uncharted Course for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 2015.
65 Tahawy, “The Brotherhood Between Revolution and Reform.”
66 Annette Ranko and Justyna Nedza, “Crossing the Ideological Divide?: Egypt’s Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood After the Arab Spring,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 39, no. 6 (2016): 519–41.
67 Ahmed Ban, “The Future of the Muslim Brotherhood Between Peacefulness and Violence” (in Arabic), Regional Center for Strategic Studies, August 12, 2015, http://goo.gl/oLrQHc.
68 George Fahmy, “The Muslim Brotherhood Organization: Struggle Over Peacefulness or Over the Organization?” (in Arabic), Al-Shorouk, December 24, 2015, http://goo.gl/s5T32d.
69 Mokhtar Awad and Mostafa Hashem, “Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center, October 2015.
70 Samuel Tadros, “The Brotherhood Divided,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 19, (September 2015): 63–84, http://goo.gl/rGXIdS.
71 Awad and Hashem, “Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency.”
72 Abdullah al-Tahawy, “The Brotherhood and the Controversy Over Revolution and Reform” (in Arabic), Al-Araby al-Jadeed, December 17, 2015, https://goo.gl/9qbDGh.