Civic Islamism: The Brotherhood and Ennahdha

A new political trend of Islamism has taken hold since the Arab Spring – one that is inclusive and moderate.

muslim brotherhood
Tunisia’s Ennahdha party won the October 23 election [EPA]

The Arab Spring has catapulted Islamists onto centre-stage – in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Sooner or later, Syria will follow. This dynamic is not going to go away. It is therefore apposite to know how the Arab Spring has, if at all, transformed Islamism and how, in turn, Islamism is transforming the Arab Spring.

Illustrative of this dynamic relationship is the Ennahdha Party’s victory at the polls back in October 2011. Through democratic contests of power, Islamists, along with other democrats, are transforming the Arab Spring from an amorphous moral tumult to an institutionalised democratic process.  

A comparison of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (EMB) and Tunisia’s Ennahdha Party (TEP) is useful in the context of the continuous rise of both groups. In particular, four areas must be highlighted when comparing the two, in order to fully grasp the roles of both powerful organisations in the new politics of the “Arab Spring states”.

Categories, boxes and labels

Civic Islamism is linked with the novelty of the context, the Arab Spring, and the new dynamic of legalised Islamism as in Egypt and Tunisia. Civic Islamism displays features of impressive organisation for the contest of power, coupled with an aptitude to penetrate secular civil society through coalition-building with non-Islamists.

Only through inclusion, competition, participation and the tests of “power”, will this force learn to moderate its politics, gradually learning to take its place amongst the progenitors of civic politics in the Arab spring states.

Civic Islamism will find itself subject to two forms of contestation.

  • From within civic Islamism, there is a challenge among pragmatists and democrats who will triumph over ideological purists and form the core of a civic Islamist culture that adapts to, as well as adopts, fragments of secular politics. This is the rare aspect of “Turkifying” Arab Islamism – mimicking Erdogan’s AKP.

    In Egypt, “Islam is the solution” is ceding to the notion of “civil state”, the guardians of which will be a mix of secularists and Islamists. In Tunisia, Ennahdha is warming up to trusting the presidency to secular and liberal figures (Marzouki, Essebsi, Mestiri or Bin Jafar). It has equally adopted the withdrawal from the “bikini battlefield” and adopted the language of “free-market economy” – not “moral economy”. Integration of unveiled women into Islamist networks or Islamist power arrangements may be another device along these lines.

  • There is the contest without which deeper habituation in democratic norms happens over time. They need to engage with the ideas of democracy, which leads to its own contests. But the best way of dealing with these contests is through the learning curve of democratic habituation and practical experience of government.

Comparing the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahdha

I use here four dimensions which will clarify how to understand this phenomenon in the heart of the geography of the Arab Spring.

Constituency or jumhur

This is a vital consideration for understanding how these formidable forces fare in electoral tests.

Both parties benefit from having a “fixed”, “committed” and “disciplined” following. This forms the primary constituency of both parties. In Egypt, they may number a few million, and Tunisia possibly several hundred thousand.

This constituency provides both parties with two unique advantages: Firstly, a “bloc” voting populace, largely made up of whole families who share partisan affiliation. These provide both parties with ready-made voting “armies” steadfast in their endorsement of the EMB’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, and the TEP.

No such membership exists anywhere. This is a typically “Islamist” feature of politics – families share religious affinity and attendant socio-political affiliation.

Whether in social welfare, times of mobilisation or electoral tests, this constituency never fails to turn up. Its rank and file are disciplined, highly committed and extremely participatory. Politics is a form of worship, a communal obligation to serve the ideals of the party and its core value system aiming to mirror Islam in polity, economy and society under an Islamist umbrella.

Ennahdha knew its followers would be voting on October 23. Non-Islamist parties do not share the same wide-based committed and disciplined following. Yes, they have a core nucleus of partisan leaders and members, but what they lack is a surrounding system of networks, and a populace who would unswervingly vote for them on polling day.

Moreover, there is the sympathetic jumhur or populace providing a second ring of support, feeding endorsement and yielding additional voting power. For the EMB and its party, work within professional syndicates has, at least, partly established a reputation of trustworthiness which serves them well with sympathisers.

For the TEP, there is wide sympathy with the systematic victimisation to which the party was subjected.

Political recruitment

The EMB has been brilliant on this front. Largely, this is due to the fact the EMB has never abandoned its struggle within Egypt. Brutality, emasculation and exclusionary tactics under Egypt’s previous three presidents helped the EMB sharpen its skills in strategising politically, choosing professional syndicates, social welfare, schooling, business or even networking trans-nationally.

The skill to know when to keep a low profile or get proactive is the secret to the EMB’s success. It never lost its appetite for politics or its power base. The EMB’s Freedom and Justice Party relies on a diverse, dispersed, wide and dynamic civil society not available to any other political force in Egypt. Already in the post-Mubarak era, the EMB – through its struggle to cultivate political capital – leads four powerful professional syndicates, including the Bar Association.

Truly, the EMB has an enviable repertoire of elites, cadres, knowledge-producers, leaders, academics, students, syndicalists, scouts, learned scholars, preachers and businessmen. The membership of the EMB’s women’s branch is larger than the constituency of entire parties within and without Egypt. That three generations of members and leaders populate the EMB indicates that loss of individual leaders is no problem to the brotherhood. The reserve is too vast to be concerned about such loss.

Note the ease with which the EMB has accomplished the creation and continuous integration of the brotherhood and the party.

By contrast, for more than 20 years, the TEP was de-linked from its power-base. Truly these were years of exile as well as of political wilderness. Today, it re-enters the foray of Tunisian politics with modest political capital. Specificity about this de-linking must be mentioned. The TEP was detached from its power-base, but its power-base was only marginally lost.

The TEP is now trying to recuperate lost time by expanding its rank-and-file, which has been fixed. It has been “dormant”. However, there is some benefit: the rise of small but disciplined elite of high cadres with Western training and networking skills. Today they are, along with the elite of professionals who spent long years in prison, such as soon-to-be premier Hammad Jebali, leading the effort to rebuild the party for the tasks of political recruitment, competition, participation and power-sharing.

Political change

Islamists in general are not revolutionary, they are evolutionary. Gradualism is the name of the political game for both the EMB and TEP. Thus the EMB and TEP look somewhat at odds with the Arab Spring and its attendant “revolutionary ethos”. But there is one affinity with revolution: their belief in bottom-up change through education, Islamisation, etc.

There is a notable difference between the two parties.

The EMB has been party to the making of Egypt’s revolution. Perhaps this was not the case from the outset, as the leadership was slow in seizing the revolutionary moment. It was weary of engaging with the powers that be through confrontation, the EMB’s Achilles heel throughout its 83-year-old history. But when, in late January, word came for the EMB guidance bureau to throw its lot behind the uprising, Tahrir Square swelled, with human waves contributing to the critical mass that paralysed Mubarak’s rule.

Exile made the TEP dull politically and eroded partisan coherence and authority. It would have stayed another 20 years in exile hadn’t the remarkable Tunisian people ousted Ben Ali. Today, like other existing political parties in the North African country, the TEP is free-riding on the revolutionary wave. It is today seeking to occupy a place in post-Ben Ali reconstruction and democratisation, and its wide appeal is helping it along the way.   

Political manoeuvring

The EMB and its party indeed have substantive experience in contestation on so many fronts: Within and without, against the state and internally. Its history is littered with miscalculation, but that is why it has today “immunised” itself from repeating the same mistakes.

It has abandoned “idealism” in the pursuit of political objectives. This it does through maximising gain and sharing it through coalition-building with secularists, Copts and today the governing Military Council. It knows what marches to boycott and what “causes” to drop from its political itinerary.

It knows well that sometimes it has to swallow the bitter pill of “bad” situations to prevent worse ones. Today, through cooperation and “political bartering” with the army, it aims at preventing a coup that would murder Egypt’s revolution. It is a stroke of genius for the Brotherhood to have “neutralised” the army. For now, that should work. It has clear strategies and aims: Maximising parliamentary gains in the next parliament, but avoiding domination.

There is more improvisation in TEP’s political strategy. Its success in the elections of October 23 is at least partly due to divisions within and weakness of secular political parties. Already the TEP has experienced unnecessary fights, sometimes not of its choosing, over the polemics over Islamic and Arab identity. However, it is fast learning some EMB tactics of co-opting secularists by directing votes to them or integrating them through coalition-building.

Looking ahead

Neither the EMB nor Ennahdha are ready for government.

However, in comparison with secular parties, they have the building blocks to transit into a zone of capacity-building in government and policy-making. The pool of human resources available to the EMB is larger, making it more buoyant and confident about taking the lead. The TEP, on the other hand and despite emerging as an electoral winner, has no choice but to share the business of government with others, or risk imperfect and costly improvisation.   

It will remain to be seen whether the taste and test of power – after a long sojourn on the margins – will bring clarity, substance and some public good to the new politics of the Arab Spring, or, failing that, come to embody the new hegemon that galvanises the children of the Arab Spring into a new search for alternative politico-moral codes.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.