By Nicholas Gjorvad
Today’s article explores the issues which face Islamists going forward. As part one pointed out, the setbacks that Islamist parties in the Middle East have recently experienced can largely be attributed to the instances of over-ambitious and unilateral moves of Islamist leaders in power. In light of the pushback from opposition groups, the future viability of Islamist movements will depend on the perception of whether Islamism is compatible with democratic values, the continued willingness of Islamists to participate in the democratic process and maintenance of strong organisational capabilities of Islamist movements.
When examining the ideology of various Islamist political parties, it appears that there is nothing inherently undemocratic, at least when it comes to electoral politics, in their political platforms. The underlying fear from secularists in the Middle East has been that Islamist parties’ verbal commitment to democratic values and human rights are not really embraced by the groups and will be disregarded when they are in power. It is not surprising that the rule of ousted president Mohamed Morsi in Egypt had furthered this perception. However, the uncompromising stances of Islamist leaders, such as Morsi, may in large part be attributed to a nascent democratic system with institutional deficiencies rather than any fundamental ideological aversion to democratic values – a sentiment expressed by some scholars of the region.
After all, Islamist parties act similarly to other political groups in that, if the situation allows, they will attempt to obtain as much power and influence as possible. Additionally, the apparent disregard for democratic norms from Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, probably have more to do with the makeup of their leadership and their quest for power rather than any ideological qualms with democracy from its members. Remember that the one common trait of the setbacks in Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt was not due to the lack of support that each Islamist group received from some segments of society, but rather was due to the crass, unilateral decision-making of those in leadership.
Both secular and religious-orientated leaders have overseen authoritarian governments in the past and it appears that authoritarianism is less dependent upon particular political ideology, but rather has a stronger correlation to the specific political environment in which these groups operate. The lessons learned by Islamist political parties going forward may lead them to operate less haphazardly within the democratic system. After all, there is a good chance that Morsi would still be president today if he had been more inclusive and operated with greater transparency, a lesson that should not be lost on Islamist parties in Tunisia, Turkey and other countries in the Middle East. Along these lines, Islamist parties must work harder to show that they accept all democratic values, not only with words but also in their actions. This also includes an understanding that democratic legitimacy extends past obtaining 50% + 1 of the vote. The narrative that Islamists are inherently apt to turn countries into absolutist, theocratic states will need to change for them to avoid the pitfalls which have hurt the Brotherhood in Egypt. In many ways, the future viability of Islamism relies on their response to this issue.
Another critical question is whether some Islamist groups will continue to participate in electoral politics at all. Could the recent overthrow of Morsi lead to widespread violence by Islamist groups as some have suggested? There have been rumblings in the social media lately that some Islamists have felt betrayed after accepting democracy and have questioned whether it was the correct decision to get involved in politics in the first place. The continued participation of Islamists in the political system is important for the realisation of an integrated society and there are encouraging signs from opposition forces in Egypt that the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups must be included in the electoral process.
Of course, much depends on how Islamists, especially the Brotherhood, react after Morsi’s ouster. Specifically, the events in Egypt could drive some Islamist groups to violence or we could witness the rebirth of a figure similar to Sayyid Qutb. While I suspect a vast majority of Islamist parties will compete in upcoming elections in Egypt and remain peaceful, perhaps some will have second thoughts as to their participation in the democratic process. Also, recall that several of these questions arose after the West’s reaction to Hamas’ parliamentary victory in 2006. From these recent examples in Egypt and Palestine, there are certainly feelings of betrayal amongst some Islamists as to the idea of democracy that the West and others prodded them to accept, only to have their electoral victories taken away or marginalised. The future evolution of Islamist parties across the religious-right spectrum will be greatly affected as to how they engage the democratic system in the future.
The final factor which will determine the viability of Islamist movements in the region is the maintenance of strong political and social organisations. To a large extent, the success of Islamist political parties in the past is due their grassroots networks. In Egypt and elsewhere, Islamist parties continue to enjoy strong political support and will certainly remain an electoral force, even after the pushback against Islamist parties in the last few months. Additionally, while opposition parties in countries such as Egypt have shown the ability to organise mass protests, there is still no indication of whether they are ready to defeat Islamists at the ballot box. At this time, some Islamists may be eagerly awaiting for upcoming elections to demonstrate their strong electoral support.
The future of Islamist movements, specifically in Egypt, will depend greatly on their organisational abilities and continued participation in the electoral system. However, it is important to point out that they may first need to acquire a wider understanding of democracy which better incorporates political pluralism and inclusive governance. Additionally, it will be interesting to see how Islamist ideologies change after the recent setbacks.
In many ways, the Brotherhood and the dramatic events that occurred this past week will be the test case for determining where Islamist parties go from here. With this in mind, part three will explore the possible scenarios as to how the Brotherhood may proceed in the future in light of recent developments.
Nicholas Gjorvad is a political researcher. He holds Masters degrees in both Philosophy and Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.