Arab Islamist Parties: Losing on Purpose?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.


Most major political parties advocate popular policies in order to win elections, or they try to win elections in order to implement preferred policies. Either way, political parties (except those with a regional or single-issue focus) aim to govern. Supposedly, Islamist parties are no different. If anything, they are thought to be particularly obsessed with gaining power.

In most Arab countries, Islamist groups are the only ones capable of winning free and fair elections. With secular and liberal opposition parties weak or nonexistent across much of the region, many analysts have argued that the full inclusion of Islamist parties is critical to any meaningful process of democratization. In other words, the future of Islamist movements and the future of Arab democracy are inextricably intertwined.

It will be difficult to achieve the latter without the participation of the former. Furthermore, as mainstream Islamists—defined here as those who renounce violence and commit to the democratic process—have increasingly adopted more moderate positions and policies, they have suggested a readiness to assume the responsibilities of power.

Rarely, however, have scholars dwelled on an intriguing possibility—that Islamist parties may not be particularly interested in actually winning elections in the first place. A careful consideration of their electoral strategy suggests an ambivalence and, in some cases, even an aversion to power. It is not a stretch to say that Islamists lose elections on purpose. With surprising frequency, they do just that.