The Islamist Identity Crisis

It is difficult to think of a more precipitous fall from power than that just endured by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Mohamed Morsi went from head of state of the Arab world’s most populous country to prisoner. With former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s candidacy for president, Egypt’s new regime is consolidating its grip on power — and despite the hopes of “liberal” supporters of the coup, the new order is proving extraordinarily repressive, as the mass death sentence of 529 Brotherhood supporters makes all too clear. The British government also announced this month that it was launching an investigation into the Islamist organization’s links to violent extremism.

Middle Eastern governments have tried to “eradicate” Muslim Brotherhood-linked parties before — but this is the first time that the repression has followed a short-lived experiment in Islamist governance. And the Brotherhood isn’t going quietly:As one leading Islamist activist in Cairo told me recently, the strategy is simple: “protest, protest, protest.”

In Egypt, the battle lines have been drawn and their basic contours are clear. There are Islamists, who oppose the new order, and there are non-Islamists, who support it. There are exceptions to this rule: The Salafi Nour Party, which opted to back Morsi’s overthrow, and the secular revolutionaries, who are increasingly regretting their decision to do the same, are important, but they are relatively small and internally divided.

The Brotherhood’s rank-and-file, for now, is consumed with the demands of survival. Evading prison, or worse, has a way of concentrating the mind. But this should not obscure the essentially ideological nature of the divide. Egypt’s internal turmoil is, of course, partly about who holds power — but it is also about nation’s deeper identity issues, which makes it much more difficult to resolve.

Islamist organizations have long experience with repression across the Middle East — but unlike today, they have not always asked their followers to fight back. During Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s assault on the Brotherhood in the 1950s, the group didn’t ask its members to descend to the streets en masse. As the Brotherhood sees it, the lesson of the Nasser era — or for that matter Syria in 1982 or Tunisia in the early 1990s — was to raise the costs of regime repression, in the hope that those costs might prove prohibitive.

Islamists groups have always been shaped by the political context of their times. When I began interviewing Islamists — long before the start of the Arab uprisings — it made little sense to focus on their doctrine and ideology. Of course, what Islamists believed mattered, but it mattered less than their political context — the repression they faced from their own regimes and the constraints imposed by an international community wary of their rise. The earlier idealism of Islamist groups — when they, naively in retrospect, made the establishment of Islamic law a call to arms — gave way to the daily grind of survival. The fear that the secret police could come at dawn pushed ideological questions to the background. There was little time for long-term planning and strategy — survival became a means as well as an end.

Even the self-conscious efforts of Islamist groups to moderate and modernize their political programs were essentially reactive exercises. They were, in effect, forced to moderate by their circumstances. Little thought was expended on the implications of so publicly diluting the Islamist contents of their message. Whether in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Libya, or any number of other countries, they simply could not envision a world in which they might govern. And if power remained elusive, there was little reason to think about what “Islamic democracy” was or what it could be.

This all changed when Islamists experienced their first brush with power. With democratization, what voters believe matters more than ever — and the same was true for Islamist politicians themselves. They may be pragmatic and all-too-willing to compromise, but at the same time, Islamists do in fact have a distinctive worldview.

When trying to understand Islamist parties, it is easy to get caught up in the power plays, in the cynical electoral maneuvers, in the messy, everyday political battles. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that, in today’s Arab world, belief and ideology matters more than ever before.

Islamist groups in Egypt and Jordan moderated not because of democracy, but before it. There was never any reason to believe that this process of moderation would continue indefinitely under an entirely different set of circumstances. Some Islamist parties, such as in Tunisia, are more willing to come to terms with liberal democracy than others. But all Islamist parties, by definition, are at least somewhat illiberal. That illiberalism will inevitably find expression in their positions and policies. To put it simply, Islamists are Islamists for a reason.

Islamists’ commitment to pragmatism — as well as their commitment to a distinctive, if vague, ideological project — makes the move to the right more tempting under democracy. They may, for example, come under pressure from Salafi parties to demonstrate their Islamic bona fides. Similarly, a leader in the Brotherhood or Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, may feel a need to push for “Islamic” legislation on a given issue because that’s what their conservative base demands.

This strategy is a way to consolidate, justify, and legitimate political power. And it becomes more useful the more unpopular Islamists become: If they cannot point to tangible economic gains — if they can’t, in other words, fix the potholes — then the temptation to cloak themselves in religion becomes all the more irresistible.

Many hoped that democratic transitions begun in 2011 would allow Arab societies to put the ideological polarization of the past behind them. And for a brief moment, it seemed like they might.

When the myriad parties of the Muslim Brotherhood-led Democratic Alliance sat down to plan their electoral strategy in the lead-up to the 2011 elections, they found that they agreed on most things, at least in the abstract. Shadi Taha, a leader of the al-Ghad party running under the Alliance list, amusingly described it this way: “With all the parties, we [met and] said what is our program. Let’s see, who’s against the fact that we need reform in the police department? Nobody? OK. Who’s against the fact that judiciary system in Egypt should be independent? OK, nobody.”

This brief unity, however, soon collided with the clear ideological divisions between the opposition groups. After the uprising, Egypt’s economic situation deteriorated considerably. Candidates routinely promised more jobs, better wages, and campaigns to root out any number of social ills — but they were, in the end, promising much the same things. In a society where most parties seemed to have similar (and similarly vague) economic programs, Islamists distinguished themselves by underscoring their Islamism.

The key in all of this is the extent to which Islamist parties are constrained by politics. Democratization removes at least some of those constraints, allowing Islamists to more faithfully express their original core mission of Islamization. To be sure, there are limits to how far Islamists can go in a country like Tunisia, with its organized minority of French-style secularists who advocate the privatization of religion. But they will test those limits, pulling back and pushing forward over time.

In Egypt and much of the rest of the region, even liberals express their commitment to Islamic law as a source of legislation. The more conservative nature of society means that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists face less obvious ideological constraints in a democratic setting. In one particularly interesting example, the liberal National Salvation Front (NSF), at the height of the group’s conflict with Morsi, accepted an invitation to meet with a group of Salafi clerics. Not only did the group seek to reassure their interlocutors they had nothing against Islam or Islamists, but one NSF leader insisted that Egyptians were all effectively Islamists anyway.

This rightward ideological thrust in Arab politics is far from unique. In fact, it confirms a pattern common to transitioning countries. While mature democracies rarely fight each other, young democracies — especially those in the throes of economic crisis — are particularly susceptible to nationalism and radicalism. This was also made clear after Morsi’s fall: In the aftermath of the coup, a large section of the population embraced a different kind of far-right politics, which included army worship and authoritarianism, xenophobic nationalism, and a desire for revenge against the Brotherhood. 

In one excellent study, the political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder argue that “incomplete democratic transitions … increase the chance of involvement in international war in countries were government institutions are weak at the outset of the transition.” What results are what they aptly call “wars of democratization.”

Mansfield and Snyder focus on interstate wars, but the same can be said for wars within. When Morsi and the Brotherhood were at their weakest, they beat the war drums, organizing a mass rally calling for “jihad” in Syria. After Morsi was overthrown, the military-backed government called for a war on “terrorists,” by which they meant not just militants in Sinai but also the Muslim Brotherhood.

Politicians use ideology — whether populist nationalism or Islamism, or some combination of both — to channel the energies of a restless, frustrated citizenry in the hope of diverting attention away from their own record of governance. Seen in such a light, the ideological polarization that has plagued post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia is not so surprising.

But it is also worth noting that the divisions between Islamists and liberals are not manufactured; they are based on fundamental differences on questions of nationhood and national identity. Arab societies will need to work them out through an uneven, painful, and sometimes bloody process of democratic bargaining and institution building. The divide can be better managed, but it is unlikely to disappear as a major and perhaps defining point of contention. It might be dispiriting to say so, but the unity on display in Tahrir Square during the 18 days of revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak was not a promise of something to come, but an aberration.

In this sense, the very existence of sizable Islamist parties helps to explain both the durability of authoritarianism and the profound difficulty of establishing democracy even after autocrats fall. The possibility that Islamist parties will win in free elections provokes anti-democratic actions on the part of an array of domestic and international actors. This was long the case before the Arab Spring and it was confirmed by the military coup in Egypt, which enjoyed near unanimous support from the country’s liberals. In Tunisia, where the Ennahda party ruled in coalition with secular parties and made major concessions on the constitution, the opposition — made up of liberals, leftists, and old regime elements — sought to dissolve both the democratically-elected parliament and government.

As Robert Dahl argued in his classic book Polyarchy,”tolerance and mutual security are more likely to develop among a small elite sharing similar perspectives.” This is what the Arab world always seemed to lack, both before and after the Arab Spring. There was simply too much at stake.

This is an adapted excerpt from Shadi Hamid’s new book,
Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East
This article originally appeared on
Foreign Policy