Scorecard: Islamist Successes and Failures

Jun 25, 2013

By Nathan Brown
            Islamists have won unprecedented political power In the Middle East since the 2011 uprisings, notably in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi marks his first year in office on June 30, 2013. Nathan Brown analyzes the Islamist scorecard.  “Despite electoral victories, Islamists have not yet figured out how to wield political power,” he concludes. “Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco in particular may soon begin questioning if they can really get all that much through the political process. They may look for other ways to reform society along Islamic lines.”

What have Islamists achieved in Egypt?
      Their main accomplishment has been winning elections. Islamist parties have done very well in every poll since the first one in March 2011 ― in the constitutional referendum, the parliamentary election, and the presidential election.
     The Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), have been particularly successful. In mid-2013, they had control of the presidency (Mohamed Morsi, left) and the upper house of parliament. The FJP drove the constitutional drafting process and succeeded in inserting some Islamic elements. The party also carved out a significant role for electoral institutions and practices that have served Islamists well.
      But rival Salafi movements―who pride themselves on putting the literal meaning of religious texts first as opposed to the Brotherhood's more flexible and gradual approach―have done something that is almost equally impressive. They took a disparate movement, which was not organized for political activity at all, and converted it over into a set of political parties and structures. Salafis have performed very well in the polls, and they managed translate their message, which is really about religion and religious practice, into a political program. They have managed to begin sketching out a political agenda, which they had always avoided doing in the past. Salafis have accomplished a lot in an extremely short period of time.

What have been their failures?
            Islamists have figured how to win political power but not how to wield it. Opposition movements that come to power often have some experience in local government, which gives them some ability in public administration ― at least in terms of formulating an agenda and filling the gap between an expansive political platform and an action plan for governing. But the Islamists have not had that experience. When the Brotherhood won the presidency and balance of power in parliament, they did not have expertise to draw on or a detailed set of ideas for how to govern.
           Islamists have not been able to translate their agenda into action. Passing laws is relatively difficult now because the political system is in flux. The Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, has ambiguous legislative authority. Islamists were also stymied by the few but crucial institutions they did not gain control of ― the military, the security apparatus and the judiciary. Those institutions have been able to effectively block the Islamist political agenda at times.
           The Islamists have not found a way to placate domestic political adversaries to handle them very effectively. Basically the entire political spectrum is lined up against them. And the judiciary seems to see Islamist rule as a threat. Other state and religious institutions are also suspicious of the Islamists.
           Some oppose the Islamists for their poor performance in governing, especially on economic management. The Islamists have been treading water at best while the Egyptian economy has been slowly deteriorating. The Brotherhood and its allies have failed to pursue a coherent economic strategy, much less produce a development agenda that will create jobs. Egyptians complain of growing unemployment, inflation, shortages, and power outages. They are increasingly inclined to blame President Mohamed Morsi since he has been in office a year. Islamists have also failed to secure an International Monetary Fund loan or develop an alternative plan.
           The Islamists have not fared much better on foreign policy. The foreign policy apparatus is broken. The military is responsible for some issues while the foreign ministry feels excluded from policymaking. And the presidency can only handle or two issues at a time. The bureaucracy is uneasy with  what they see as the president's “lone-ranger” approach.
           The Islamists managed to avoid diplomatic disaster after the 9/11 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. President Morsi does not have a great sense of international politics, so his response was a bit slow ― and formulated as much with a domestic eye as with an international one. The Brotherhood in particular is still trying to figure out how to act as a governing movement rather than as a political party.
           But the Islamists have had a few tactical successes. Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that ended the November 2012 Gaza conflict. The ceasefire essentially gave the Islamists a do-over in terms of their relations with the United States. The Islamists have also begun to reposition Egypt as a significant player in regional diplomacy.

What have Islamists achieved in Tunisia?
      At first glance, Tunisia seems similar to Egypt in that the Islamists have done well at the polls, in this case through elections to a constituent assembly. Tunisia initially seemed like it would have an easier time transitioning to democracy because of one key difference ― Islamists did not win an absolute majority.
      The leading Islamist party, Ennahda, had to build a coalition with two secular parties. Interim President Moncef Marzouki is from the secular Congress for the Republic party while Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh (left), is an Ennahda member. Tunisia’s transition process was also better-designed than Egypt’s. The Tunisians have taken their time, which may allow them to focus on more long-term issues.
           Ennahda has succeeded in directing the drafting of the constitution. Strong voices within the party pushed for a stronger role for Shariah in the constitution. But Ennahda ended up making a savvy political judgment and backed off on Islamic law. The leadership argued that a working constitutional system would give Ennahda the tools to pursue its agenda. So the party paid careful attention to the distribution of power between the president and parliament. They shored up democratic mechanisms, which have benefited Islamists so far. The Brotherhood in Egypt had also toyed with that idea, but did not have the discipline and patience to see it through.

What have been their failures?
           The main shortcomings were threefold. First, Ennahda failed to prevent polarization in society. It seemed to be the political movement best positioned ideologically to reach out to the secular opposition. Ennahda was actually forced to do so because it did not win an absolute majority in the constituent assembly. But the non-Islamist spectrum is still very concerned about Ennahda. Some secular parties seem to still be in a state of panic because of its quick rise. They have not managed to present a friendlier face.
           Ennahda’s second shortcoming has been its handling of the Salafis. They pose a clear challenge by taking up issues that Ennahda has compromised on. The Salafis can portray themselves as the truce face of Islam. Some have entered politics but others have staged demonstrations or clashed with security forces. Such actions have been a distraction from the political process. But Ennahda has not figured out how to best respond.
           The Islamists record on the economy has also been lackluster. Taking decisive action or developing a comprehensive policy has been difficult, perhaps because of the uncertainties of the transition process. But overall the situation seems less critical than in Egypt.

What have Islamists achieved in Morocco?
     The situation for Islamists in Morocco is different in terms of electoral success and governing compared to Tunisia and Egypt. The regime did not fall in Morocco. It made calculated decisions to slightly open up the political system and to allow Islamists to lead the government. The Justice and Development Party (PJD) ― the leading Islamist party―assumed some positions of authority within an existing regime rather than after a revolution. Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane (left), a PJD member, formed a coalition government in early 2012. His party gained control of the ministries of higher education, justice and foreign affairs.

What have been their failures?
           The Moroccan political system has always been characterized by an ambiguity of where policy is really made ― in the palace or through the regular political system. The Islamists now have a very strong role in regular system, but the degree to which they can really sketch out and pursue policy is more limited. So Morocco is actually similar to Egypt in one sense. Egypt’s security services and the military still hold great power even though the Brotherhood holds the political reigns.
           The difference between Egypt and Morocco is balance. In Egypt, the Islamists managed to work out a modus vivendi, at least thus far, allowing military and security services some autonomy within their own realm. In Morocco, the balance is tilted much more in favor of the palace.
           In Morocco, the Islamists tried to form a cabinet, but with a wide swath of Moroccan state policy more responsive to old political structures ― especially the palace. But the PJD, the leading party in the coalition government, failed to resolve its differences with the secular Istiqlal (Independence) Party. Istiqlal pulled out of the government in May 2013. Members felt the number-two party was not allotted enough ministries.
           Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the electoral success of Islamists has not engendered polarization in Moroccan society. Many circles are suspicious of the Islamists. But this is not a new phenomenon and is not tied to their entrance into government.
           The real challenge to the PJD may come from other Islamists ― not from secular critics. The party, if seen as ineffectual or coopted could be outflanked in its own realm and lose some of its rank and file members to the alternative Islamist movement ― al Adl wa Ihsan (Justice and Charity). But Justice and Charity is banned from politics and regards the current political system as illegitimate anyway.

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He is also a nonresident senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book is When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (2012). His website is http://home.gwu.edu/~nbrown.

Photo Credits:
-President Mohamed Morsi via his official Facebook page.
-Ali Larayedh by Arbimaestro  Derivate: ELEL09 (Ali Laarayedh.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
-Abdelilah Benkirane by Davos World Economic Forum [CC-BY-SA-2.0] via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons

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The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties.  They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.

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