Islamist Movements: The Uses of Democracy

Khalil al-Anani
Khalil al-Anani Senior Fellow - Arab Center Washington DC

August 16, 2008

Although many Islamist movements and parties have resolved their theological dilemma with respect to democracy and democratic practices, these parties and movements exhibit vast discrepancies between them in their understanding and internal application of democratic standards. As important as a commitment to democracy has become as a means to optimise their social and political gains, some Islamists still doubt the value of democracy as the most effective means for managing internal differences and for enhancing their organisational efficacy, and continue to subscribe to such values as blind allegiance and obedience, unquestioning reverence for the leadership and for a religious-based organisational hierarchy.

Arab Islamist movements and parties fall into two primary categories in this regard. The first comprises those with a virtually ideal internal climate, especially when compared to some Arab liberal and leftist parties. Democracy in this group extends beyond decision-making formalities to include complete provisions for the application of the principles of responsibility, accountability and transparency. In the second category, democracy appears to be regarded not so much for its moral value as for its instrumentality in steering the internal interplay in a particular direction. This pragmatic attitude creates the impression that there exist certain inviolable boundaries to democracy in these groups and that their leaders are averse to allowing democratic principles and values to take root among the rank and file.

In the first category we find Morocco’s Justice and Development Party. A major model for the application of democratic criteria to its internal structures, this party holds periodic elections at all its organisational levels (the national convention, the national council, the secretary- general and all subsidiary committees). At the sixth party congress held several weeks ago, it achieved another major democratic breakthrough with the amendment of the party’s organic law so as to provide for greater powers to executive and decision-making bodies and, hence, to effectively check the authorities of the secretary-general and his deputies. In addition, the quotas allocated to youth and women at the higher levels of the party’s echelons were increased. In the elections held during the congress, Abdelillah Benkiran won the party leadership with a wide majority over incumbent Saadeddin Al-Othmani.

The Bahraini Al-Wefaq Islamic Society also falls into the first category. Founded in 2001, the society’s internal democracy has long set it apart from most other Islamist movements, especially Shia ones. The party’s charter provides for a flexible and balanced distribution of powers between its general congress and consultative council.

The Islamist movements in Egypt, Jordan and Algeria fall into the second category, in which recourse to democracy is an internal bone of contention and used as an instrument to settle scores between rival factions within them. In Jordan last year, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s consultative council dissolved itself voluntarily following the poor showing of Brotherhood candidates in the parliamentary elections. As honourable an admission of responsibility the council’s self- dismissal was, it was simultaneously an acknowledgement of defeat for the doves in their bitter contest with the hawks within the movement. Indeed, the latter quickly held the doves fully responsible for the unprecedented setback in the parliamentary elections in which their candidates won only six out of 110 seats. Naturally, conservatives have since gained an upper hand in subsequent internal elections for the Jordanian Brotherhood consultative council and executive bureau.

In this instance, democracy appears to serve more as an instrument of punishment, not only against a particular faction within the group but also against society in general and the relative weight of the movement in that society. The fallout from the electoral defeat propelled Hamam Said to the leadership of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. The new supreme guide is notoriously conservative and rigid, especially in comparison to this predecessor, Salem Al-Fallahat, and through his election Muslim Brotherhood members delivered the implicit message to the regime that they intended to take the tough line now that the regime demonstrated that the flexibility of the doves only made them easier prey. However, the Muslim Brotherhood’s internal crisis continued to snowball. Soon the doves and moderates boycotted several meetings of the executive bureau in protest against its procrastination of an “internal” hearing with the secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front, Zaki Bin Arshid, whom they charge with autocratic behaviour and indifference to the views of the executive bureau. Such “retaliatory” democracy, if we can call it that, does little credit to the movement and certainly harms its image and its relationship with the state and society.

To think that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is internally democratic is patently absurd, not only because of the lack of any checks and balances in its hierarchical structures but also because of the absence of a democratic culture in its ranks. While the organisation’s charter provides for elections to its various committees and leadership posts, the principles of integrity, transparency, accountability and performance remain alien to a prevailing culture and organisational approach founded upon unquestioning loyalty and obedience. To be fair, the democratic stagnation within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood cannot be divorced from two chief factors. The first is the total absence of democratic practice in all political institutions in Egypt, which is indicative of how weak and isolated, both socially and politically, the democratically oriented cultural pockets are in Egypt. The second factor is the complex legal status that has affected the organisation for more than half a century. Nevertheless, these factors do not exonerate Brotherhood leaders for their failure to inculcate respect for the rules of democratic practice in general Brotherhood mentality and to take steps to alleviate the impact of this shortcoming on the movement’s status and influence in society.

The fact is that even the Brotherhood’s most crucial and strategic decisions regarding internal matters or its relationship with the regime lack any real legitimacy, whether due to the absence of a “democratic” quorum or to the lack of a mechanism for polling members’ opinions. A recent example of this is to be found in the so-called elections to fill some free seats in the organisation’s executive bureau. Apparently, no one was clear about the election process and many doubted its fairness and transparency. In the end, when the supreme guide announced the results there was no way to ascertain how these results were obtained. Meanwhile, the broader Brotherhood membership was no better informed on these elections than the general public.

In Algeria, it is clear that the Movement of the Society of Peace, formerly called Hamas, benefited little from the lengthy experience of the “moderate” Islamist movement in Algeria. Following the death of its founder, Mahfoud Nahnah, it became mired in a bitter internal power struggle and is now divided between two camps led, respectively, by its current leader Bouguerra Sultani and his vice- president Abdul-Meguid Munasara. Tensions reached their height during the leadership elections in the fourth congress last April when the movement was virtually split down the middle between supporters of Sultani and Munasara. As a whole, the relationship between the hierarchical components of the movement (the general congress, its consultative council, its executive bureau and other offices) is extremely rigid and inflexible.

In the final analysis, whether democracy is practised as a means to enhance the political and organisational performance of the group, as in the first category above, or as little more than a dispute settling mechanism, as is the case in the second category, democracy has become an essential instrument for moderate Islamist movements. Moreover, Islamist movements and parties such as those mentioned above appear to fare considerably better on democracy than many Arab secularist and liberal parties, which claim to advocate democracy but totally fail to practice it internally.