Center for Strategic Communication

The election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed el-Morsi as President
of Egypt, following the electoral victory of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, has sharpened the world’s focus on the role of Islamist movements in a
rapidly changing Middle East. The turn from an "Arab Spring" to an "Islamist Summer (and/or Winter)", as pessimists warn gloomily that the overthrowing of dictators is only
empowering a new generation of religious fanatics, has become the stuff of cliche.  But the concern over rising Islamist political power in both the West and in countries such as Egypt is very real. Who are these movements? What do they want? And
how will they shape — and be shaped by — the region’s new politics? 

I am thrilled to announce today’s publication of a new ebook, Islamists in a Changing Middle East.  This collection of dozens of essays originally published on offers deep insights into the evolution of these Islamist movements. They offer
accessible, deeply informed analysis by top experts, which can help to correct many of the
misconceptions about such movements while also drawing attention to very real
dangers. These essays were written in real time, in response to
particular circumstances and challenges, and have been only lightly edited and
updated for this volume in order to retain the urgency and passion with which
they were written. The essays offer snapshots of a political moment, informed
by deep experience and long study of these movements and the countries within
which they operate. They have enduring value.  [[BREAK]]

The success of Islamist movements in transitional elections in the Arab world should have come as no surprise.  Most non-Islamist political parties across the region have long since been crushed, co-opted, or calcified into political irrelevance.  Meanwhile, Islamist movements managed for the most part to avoid the taint of association with the old regimes, and have long been the
best-organized and most popular political movements in most Arab countries.  They have also spent decades systematically reshaping the public culture of the region at all levels of society.  Islamists were thus naturally well positioned
to take advantage of the political openings in many Arab states that followed the
great protest wave of 2011.  No meaningful transition towards more democratic systems could have avoided the reality of significant Islamist constituencies and organizations. 

But that does not mean that such Islamist movements are all powerful.  One point which
quickly emerges from the essays in this volume is simply how disorienting the newly open
political vistas have been for Islamists, and how easily their advantages can evaporate.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for instance, has gone from a cautious movement to a risk-taking power broker which seems intent on grabbing as much power as possible before its window closes and has succeeded in alienating most other political forces along the way. It saw its sweeping Parliamentary victory wiped away with the stroke of a judicial pen and the powers of its narrowly won Presidency constrained by decree.  A President unable to even appoint his own Minister of Defense is unlikely to succeed at imposing unpopular sharia laws.  Its rise has so frightened and angered its political rivals that some avowed liberals and revolutionaries have rallied to the side of the long-hated SCAF.  In short, the Brotherhood has struggled to deal with its own
ascendance, as it suffers internal fissures and unprecedented public scrutiny.  Not even the Brotherhood’s leadership seems quite certain how their new opportunities will ultimately affect their
behavior, their ideology, or their internal organization.

Other Islamist parties have similarly struggled to master the new political terrain. At one point in the summer of 2011, a leader of the
Egyptian Salafi party, al-Nour, told me that if all went well his party might
win four or five seats; it won over 100.  Since that success, the performance of its Parliamentarians has proven underwhelming, leading to serious rethinking in the salafi ranks.  Tunisia’s Ennahda won the founding elections and initially managed to hold together a broad national consensus, but has struggled to keep its balance in the face of impatient salafis, disgruntled revolutionaries, and anxious secularists.  Libya’s Islamists look set to do poorly at the polls.  Morocco’s Islamist PJD may have taken the Presidency, but only by accepting the King’s political terms.  Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood is planning to boycott upcoming Parliamentary elections.  Kuwait’s Islamists have been rocked by the Emir’s dissolution of Parliament.  

The new political landscape is rapidly exposing long-standing divisions among the Islamists themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood is not
al Qaeda, the Global Muslim Brotherhood Organization exercises little control
over its national branches, and Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood parties are
competing furiously for votes and for Islamist credibility.  The
participation of Salafi parties in democratic politics is even more novel. While
some Salafi parties had entered the political fray in the Gulf prior to the
Arab uprisings, there had rarely been anything quite like the electoral rise of
Egypt’s al-Nour Party. Salafi movements had for decades rejected democracy on
principle, as apostasy which replaced the rule of God with the rule of man. The
enthusiasm with which these movements now entered the electoral fray suggests
that they may yet wear their ideology lightly. But the harsh rhetoric and radical views of many of these
inexperienced Salafi politicians shocked local and foreign audiences alike. Islamist political parties have to calculate
their strategy in uncertain legal and political environments, weigh both
domestic and international calculations, and decide how to reconcile their
ideals with the demands of practical politics.

The exercise of
power, in short, poses significant challenges to all such movements.   The
authoritarian realities of these regimes created something of a safety net for
these political Islamists. Imposing Sharia law was never before an option, but now even pragmatic
leaderships must explain to a more radical rank and file why they do not
try. Since there was never any real possibility that they
could come to power through the ballot box, they were rarely forced to choose
between their Islamist ideology and their democratic commitments. They could
posture as democratic reformists, highlighting corruption or repression,
without having to signal whether they would use a position of power to impose
their vision of Islamic morality on others. The Arab uprisings have removed
that buffer, forcing many of these movements to confront for the first time the
opportunity to actually rule. How, one wonders, will Muslim Brothers or Salafis in
leading roles in
an Egyptian government deal with the need to take IMF or World Bank
loans to
rescue the economy, when the Islamic sharia forbids the charging or
paying of
interest? How will they deal with the need to coordinate policies toward
with Israel? It has already been intriguing to watch Egypt’s new President work to reassure the United States that his country would continue to honor its treaty commitments, including those to Israel.

These deep divisions among competing Islamist trends should ease fears of  the rise of a unified Islamic bloc across the
Middle East and North Africa, however. Islamists are deeply divided amongst
themselves about political strategy and how to wield political authority. Some
hope to immediately impose Islamic cultural policies, while others prefer to focus
on economic development. Participation in politics is already changing
these movements, strengthening some factions and weakening others. What is
more, their very success carries the seeds of a backlash — both from
frightened liberals and from Islamist purists disgusted by the compromises
necessary to political power, as well as from those upset with their failure to solve likely intractable problems.  Non-Islamist movements may catch up with the Islamists in forming political parties and harness the substantial non-Islamist electorate. And finally, the experience of the 1950s and
1960s bears recalling, when pan-Arabist dominated states such as Iraq, Syria,
and Egypt proved bitter rivals rather than easy allies under the banner of
Gamal Abed Nasser. 

For all these challenges to the Islamists themselves, there
are also good reasons for secularists or liberals to worry about what such movements
might do with state power. It is extremely significant that Islamists of almost all stripes have now decisively opted to accept the
legitimacy of the democratic game. It is far better to have such groups inside
the democratic process than to have them as marginalized outsiders — as long
as they are willing to respect democratic rules, public freedoms, and the
toleration of others.  But at the same time, they should be judged by their behavior. Even where these movements have proven to be able and committed democrats, they are most certainly not liberals and will not become so.  The same democracy advocates who once defended
the Islamists against regime repression now should legitimately hold them
accountable for their own actions — and insist that they respect fundamental human rights, tolerate competing views and identities, and refrain from imposing their preferences on the unwilling.

All of this marks a
dramatic change since the bleak days following September 11, 2001 and the dark days of jihad and civil war in Iraq, when
extremist views and violent rhetoric dominated views of Islamism. The appeal of
violent jihadism has clearly faded, at least for now, and few Islamists still
openly reject the principle of democracy. Al Qaeda has struggled to
adapt to the Arab uprisings, with the American killing of Osama bin Laden marking
at least a symbolic ending to a decade dominated by a so-called "War on
Terror." But it would be wrong to assume that this will necessarily last.
Indeed, one could easily imagine the appeal of jihadism returning with a
vengeance should democratic politics fail or should Islamist politicians
compromise so much that they alienate purists in their ranks. And, of course,
state collapse and protracted civil strife create new opportunities for jihadists to regroup. Syria, in particular, already seems en route to becoming a major new rallying call for salafi-jihadists, a new front for jihad to replace the lost opportunities of Iraq.

The essays
collected in Islamists in a Changing Middle East  capture the complexity and the uncertainty of the new
Islamism in the rapidly transforming Middle East. They offer no easy answers and no unified perspective. Instead,
they present deeply informed analysis of these movements as they have
confronted new challenges and seized new opportunities. They show the Islamist
movements in all their similarities and differences, their struggles and their
advances, and their troubled engagement with a rapidly changing Middle East. They offer well-informed, timely and highly readable analysis of Islamist movements from some really top-notch experts. Get it as a PDF or as a Kindle eBook today!