Whither political Islam?

Islamists have proven to be quite resilient in the face of existential threats.

Prime Minister Erdogan's realism is the reason for the success of political Islam in Turkey [AP]

The downfall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has put political Islam at a crossroads. Not only has it shown that ideology per se is not a guarantor of political success, but also that Islamists need to rethink their strategy and tactics in order to deal with the new environment following the Arab Spring.

However, the debate over the end of political Islam in the Middle East is not only premature but also irrelevant and certainly misleading. Instead it would be more effective to discuss the ideological and political changes that might occur within Islamist movements during crisis time.

Survival impulse

During repression, survival becomes the chief goal for Islamists. As ideological and social movements, Islamists tend to unite in order to maintain cohesion among their rank-and-file. This has been the case with the MB since its founding in 1928. The movement has encountered many crises over the last decades; however, it hasn’t fractured or split.

Islamist movements seem to be a reflection of a traditional and conservative social bloc that appears to have Arab societies in its grip.

Over the past three decades, the MB has capitalised on former President Hosni Mubarak’s brutality and dehumanisation of the group. Counter-intuitively, oppression enables Islamists to survive and unite while also strengthening and expanding their social networks. This was illustrated when Mubarak’s ouster allowed the MB to emerge as Egypt’s most robust and organised movement.

The survival impulse also explains the behaviour of the Tunisian Ennahda Party. Over the past three years, Ennahda’s leaders have shown a high degree of pragmatism and flexibility. Hence, they were keen not to alienate or marginalise Tunisia’s secular and liberal forces. Instead, they proved willing to make ideological and political concessions, which recently culminated in their agreement to hand power over to a technocratic government. Clearly, Ennahda has learnt a lesson from the MB’s experience in Egypt.

Crisis of political Islam

The fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt has revealed the crisis that faces Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring; the lack of a revolutionary mind-set and agenda. The majority of Islamist movements in the Arab world maintain a conservative and outdated vision that could not live up to the aspirations and dreams that fuelled the Arab Spring three years ago.

This conservatism, or lack of revolutionary ideology, continues to be incompatible with the new environment that ensued after the fall of the old regimes. The majority of Arab youth who took to the streets were driven mainly by a revolutionary and ambitious agenda that could change their lives and destiny. However, they were struck by the emergence of the traditional Islamists who sought to diffuse the revolution. Moreover, Islamist movements seem to be a reflection of a traditional and conservative social bloc that seems to have Arab societies in its grip.

The inability to create such a revolutionary platform is in fact the most important reason for the MB’s downfall. They continue to act as the largest conservative social movement in Egypt. This allows them to maintain a closed and rigid structure composed of Egypt’s lower and middle classes, who are located mainly in the Nile Delta, and the more impoverished parts of Upper Egypt. Surprisingly, large segments of these demographics turned away from the Brotherhood during its year in power, although they benefitted the most from the group’s social services network.

Salafis’ ambiguous future

Over the past three years, the Salafis have emerged as one of the victors of the Arab Spring. They have gained considerable political clout and have played a key role in reshaping domestic politics. However, Salafi parties seem to have misunderstood what the Arab Spring represents and appeared to have forgotten why they entered politics in the first place.

Since Morsi’s downfall, Salafis have only become increasingly fragmented. While Salafist parties such as al-Watan and al-Asalah have supported the Brotherhood, others such as al-Nour have chosen to support the July coup. Meanwhile, the military-backed government’s attempt to control the religious domain has restricted Salafi sheiks and imams from disseminating their ideology. The closure of several Salafi-oriented television channels has left many Salafi leaders marginalised and voiceless.

The Salafis’ future appears to be increasingly uncertain mainly due to their inconsistency. For example, they allied with the Brotherhood when they were in power only to support the military and its roadmap following Morsi’s removal. Their attempt at advancing their political and ideological agendas has resulted in a loss of support and credibility. While al-Nour’s flexibility might underscore its political acumen and pragmatism, it may also undermine the standing and credibility of the party among Islamists.

Generally, al-Nour’s political calculations are threefold: First, it seeks to ensure that the Brotherhood will not recover from the current crackdown any time soon. Second, al-Nour’s leaders believe that they can fill the political vacuum left by the Brotherhood, at least within the Islamic constituency. Third, it hopes to achieve an impressive result in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The experience of the last three years has shown that democracy is a long and intricate path and without including all political forces, domestic and regional stability will remain far-fetched.

Nevertheless, al-Nour’s pragmatism could be costly. To its disadvantage, the party has alienated itself from other Salafi parties such as al-Watan, al-Asalah and al-Fadhila. Moreover, the party’s support for the military’s roadmap has enraged various Salafi sheiks and notables who have harshly criticised the party’s strategy. It’s unlikely that al-Nour has the organisational or the human capacities that would enable it to replace the Brotherhood. Finally, it is not guaranteed that al-Nour will remain legal as the new draft constitution bans religious parties. Indeed, the party might seem to be digging its own grave by calling upon its supporters to vote “yes” for the constitution.

Historically, repression has been a key factor in generating extremism by allowing for the emergence of radical and violent Islamist trends. After all, when Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s iconic president during the 1950s and 1960s, prosecuted and tortured many members of the MB, Sayyd Qutb surfaced as the chief ideologue and inspired many young Islamists who implemented his philosophy on the ground. Similarly, the Rabaa massacre, which left hundreds of peaceful protesters dead, in addition to the on-going repression, are potential turning points in the path of political Islam. Having lost faith in democracy, it is likely that the Islamist youth may exchange participation in peaceful politics for an extreme Qutbist ideology and discourse. If this happens, it would be the kiss of death for the Arab Spring.

Political resilience 

History has shown political Islam to be a resilient phenomenon. When they encounter an existential threat, Islamists tend to adapt, endure and recover, albeit in different forms. When Nasser clamped down on the Brotherhood by imprisoning dozens of the group’s members, many believed that the movement was dead. However, the movement re-emerged in the 1970s and 1980s more vigorously and tenaciously.

Similarly, when the Turkish secular establishment deposed Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister and the leader of the Welfare Party, Turkish Islamists struck back in 2002, and have ruled the country ever since. However, the return of Turkish Islamists happened only after they made fundamental changes in their ideology and political platform. They moved from Erbakan’s “idealism” to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “realism”, and built their model of governance based on meritocracy, transparency and accountability. Indeed, the success of political Islam in Turkey underscores that inclusion is a crucial factor in altering Islamists’ ideology and mind-set to become more moderate and progressive.

To sum up, the experience of the last three years has shown that democracy is a long and intricate path and without including all political forces, domestic and regional stability will remain far-fetched.

Dr Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and an adjunct professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC. His is the author of “Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics” (forthcoming) and the co-editor of “Elections and Democratization in the Middle East” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). 

Follow him on Twitter: @Khalilalanani