The Rise of the Islamists

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.


How can the United States promote democracy in the Arab world without risking bringing Islamists to power? Now, it seems, the United States no longer has a choice. Popular revolutions have swept U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes from power in Tunisia and Egypt. If truly democratic governments form in their wake, they are likely to include significant representation of mainstream Islamist groups.

At their core, however, mainstream Islamist organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan and al Nahda in Tunisia, have strong pragmatic tendencies. When their survival has required it, they have proved willing to compromise their ideology and make difficult choices. At the same time, democratic governments – Islamist or not – reflect popular sentiment, and in the Middle East, this sentiment is firmly against Israel and U.S. hegemony in the region. As new parties compete for votes, the incentives for Islamists to indulge in anti-Israel anti-American posturing to win the votes of the faithful may be greater. Pragmatism can cut both ways.

For this reason, it is better to initiate a regular, substantive dialogue with Islamist groups sooner rather than later. In discussing key foreign policy concerns, the U.S. might discover more convergence of interests than it expects. For example, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood—brutally repressed by President Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s—has long shared U.S. fears of a powerful Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Like the United States, the group has often criticized Iran as a dangerous sectarian regime intent on projecting Shiite influence across the Arab world. Defying public opinion, Syrian Brotherhood figures even criticized Hezbollah for provoking Israel to attack Lebanon in 2006.

At any rate, the revolutions have made the shortsightedness of current U.S. policy— studiously avoiding formal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded groups—clear. The West knows much less about Egypt’s most powerful opposition force than it should, and could. Like it or not, the United States will have to learn to live with political Islam.

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