Islamist movements did not start the protests that have so far unseated three Arab dictators.
The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia succeeded precisely because they avoided the divisions – of ideology, class and, in Egypt, religion – that have traditionally fractured and weakened the opposition in the Arab world.
Yet Islamist movements were more successful than any other parties in the recent parliamentary elections in Egypt and Tunisia, prompting some observers to accuse them of “stealing the revolutions”.
The protests that drove political changes in 2011 hoisted slogans with universal appeal – calling for freedom, dignity, social justice – more than they proffered specifically Islamic slogans.
They were not Islamist, anti-Islamist or non-Islamist protests; Islamists participated alongside secularists, liberals and leftists and there were striking images of Muslims and Christians guarding each other’s prayers in Tahrir Square.
Neither Islamist movements nor other existing political parties can claim credit for these youth-led, spontaneously swelling street movements.
Expansion of influence
When it has come to the subsequent electoral campaigning, however, Islamist movements’ history of building grassroots support has paid off. They are generally seen as the best-organised political groups in both Egypt and Tunisia.
Their expansion of influence since the 1970s is partly due to the failures and the repression of the secular, Arab nationalist opposition that previously dominated the political scene. The Arab nationalist trend was gradually weakened by the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, and the increasing divide between rich oil-exporters and poorer states in the Arab world.
Slowly and stealthily, governments around the region also took steps to reinforce religious movements as a counterweight to the Arab nationalists, hoping these would focus people’s minds more on personal piety and political quiescence. Some did.
However, a new generation of Islamist activists, including students, teachers and members of professional associations, moved to fill the vacuum left by the weakening of the secular movements. For many people of the region, Islam presented an appealing alternative to Arabism as a locally rooted, seemingly authentic political identity in an era of decolonisation. In its early days, the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran galvanised a range of both Sunni and Shia groups, although Iran’s evolution into a repressive and isolated post-revolution regime has evidently become a far less attractive model for most. When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared on a TV screen in Tahrir Square last year, he was roundly booed.
Today, the relative strength of Islamist movements is partly a reflection of the repressive authoritarian structures that have impeded the development of political activities outside the mosques.
In Egypt especially, their strength also reflects the gaping holes in the state provision of services; gaps which Islamist activists have filled with charitable activities. But these movements, forged under authoritarianism, will need to evolve and adapt as the environment around them changes and opens.
Signs of this are already evident in Egypt and Tunisia. In Egypt, several new political parties have broken away from the Muslim Brotherhood and its officially sanctioned Freedom and Development Party, including the youth-led Egyptian Current Party (Al-Tayyar Al-Masry), which calls for a civil state with Islamic values rather than an Islamic state; its founders were promptly expelled from the Brotherhood. There are also suggestions that in Tunisia, leftists may seek to form a rival Islamist party to Ennahda, which has taken a broadly centre-right position on matters of economic policy.
The dominant Islamist movements in Egypt and Tunisia are now confronted with what is for them an unprecedented challenge of governing. They have to do so within existing state structures, in parliaments where no single party has an outright majority, and where the ability to compromise and to make alliances will be critical. No Islamist grouping won an outright majority in either of the elections. In Tunisia, Ennahda won 41 per cent of the vote in the October, and has formed a coalition with centrist secularists. The party has already shown its willingness to negotiate during the preparations for the election, in signing up to an agreement, pro-posed by other parties, to ensure that 50 per cent of candidates were female.
In Egypt, initial estimates suggest that Islamist parties between them won a strong majority in the parliamentary elections.
However, this vote is split between the Brotherhood – a political movement that has previous experience of participat-ing in elections, albeit heavily rigged ones, using nominally “independent” candidates – and the more recently assembled Al-Nour party, a Salafist grouping, born from a movement that has traditionally shied away from politics and taken a far more puritanical approach to Islam.
The two are competitors, vying not only for votes but for the claim to represent the best interpre-tation of Islam. In that regard, the Salafists are more of a threat to the Brotherhood than the secular parties, who do not con-test its fundamental claim to legitimacy.
Moreover, on many purely political issues, the Brotherhood has more in common with liberal parties than it does with Al-Nour – presenting potential future dilemmas over alliance-building.
There are still undoubted tensions between the Brotherhood and some Egyptian liberals, who worry that the Brotherhood’s apparent commitment to democracy may be simply an intolerant majoritarianism that leaves little room for religious or political minorities.
In Egypt, the Brotherhood has been at the forefront of demands for a stronger parliament – but then, it anticipated its popularity with voters.
Meanwhile, there are anti-democratic tendencies among some liberals, based on fear that Islamist government would threaten their rights and privileges. But the divide is not a simple Islamist-versus-liberal split.
Many are trying to find ways to continue working together, as in Tahrir. Perhaps this will be easier for the younger generation whose formative political experience was the unity of Tahrir, not the traditional competition between established political groups, and who are seeking new ways to make aspirations to Islamic legitimacy and to democracy compatible.
Ultimately, supporters of democracy in the Arab world should be concerned about any political actors that are intolerant, anti-democratic, violent and sectarian.
These worries are neither unique nor specific to Islamist movements. Certainly, recent history provides few promising models of states run by Islamists; the current focus of many Arab Islamists on the so-called “Turkish model” may have less to do with the merits of Turkey itself than with the useful contrast it presents with Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, or Taliban-era Afghanistan.
On the other hand, for Islamists, governments like those of Syria, Iraq and Tunisia have earned secularism a bad name.
The vague, catch-all term Islamist belies the diversity of movements that seek to draw inspiration, values and legitimacy from Islam. There are enormous differences in thinking both between different Islamist groups, and within them.
Crucially, this diversity is likely to increase as a result of the new-found political opening in the Arab world.
Jane Kinninmont is Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House