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The evolution of Islamism since the Arab uprisings
By Quinn Mecham October 24, 2014

An Egyptian protester ransacks the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo on July 1, 2013. (Khalil Hamra/AP)
The Arab uprisings of 2010-2011 provided a major shock that led to the rapid evolution of Islamism in the Arab world. While it was clear at the outset that the shock to Islamist movements would be large, how Islamist movements would internalize that shock and the direction in which they would evolve were highly contingent on the evolution of the Arab political systems. Since the initial uprisings, Islamist movements have evolved dramatically due to a several key trends that have defined and redefined their experience in the new Arab political (dis)order. These trends must be understood in the context of the opportunities Islamist movements faced in initial uprising period.
Although most Islamist movements, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, were initially slow to lead popular mobilization against autocratic Arab regimes, they recognized that they could benefit from changes in the post-uprisings political landscape. As it became apparent in many Arab countries that new elections could translate popular support for Islamist movements into political power, many Islamist groups supported the electoral process and launched aggressive campaigns to define society’s needs and capture votes.
These visions, championed by diverse Islamist groups such as Ennahda in Tunisia, Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups in Egypt, Islah in Yemen and the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco, as well as Islamist groups in Libya, Jordan and Kuwait, saw the 2011-12 period as a potential renaissance for Islamist participation in governance. They clumsily entered into political competition with other actors who also sought to redefine the emerging political order. In a large number of countries experiencing political turmoil (Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen and Kuwait) Islamist groups found new levels of political prominence. Importantly, however, they were actively repressed by the state in Syria, and often had only limited access to key domains of state power (in Libya, Egypt and the monarchies).
Since their initial experience with mass mobilization and the political openings in 2011-12, four main trends have affected Islamist movements in the Arab world that have dramatically shifted their perceived political opportunities. These trends have led to the rapid evolution and devolution of Islamist groups, often in deeply defining ways that will leave a long-term organizational legacy for Islamist groups far into the future. I discuss each of these trends in turn.
Trend #1: Repression of the Muslim Brotherhood
Though a long-standing actor of significance in Egyptian society and politics, as well as a leader among Islamist movements in the Arab world, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood initially appeared to benefit significantly from the political opening after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood had wide-ranging internal discussions regarding its electoral strategy in the post-Mubarak period, but ultimately chose to compete aggressively for both control of the People’s Assembly and the Egyptian presidency. In the Egyptian elections of 2011-12, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won both the Assembly elections and the presidency, leading many in Egypt to fear Brotherhood dominance of the institutions of government.
In retrospect, the Brotherhood’s move to reverse its initial decision not to contest the presidency was a fateful one. After its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, narrowly won the election and became president of Egypt, he sought to challenge existing centers of power in Egypt, and was unable to resolve the deep economic and social challenges faced by Egyptians in the wake of political turmoil. Widespread popular anger at governmental ineptitude, combined with military concerns over potential threats to its economic and political prerogatives, led the Egyptian military and courts to disband the Brotherhood-dominated Assembly and subsequently forcibly remove Morsi from office in 2013.
Although a case could be made that the Brotherhood-dominated government had squandered its extensive popular support, the military decision to forcibly remove an elected Islamist government had enormous consequences for the incentives of Islamist groups to compete in popular elections. Furthermore, the military and judicial decision to aggressively pursue the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization, regardless of its political positions, cast a long shadow over Islamist political calculations that has only darkened over time. Beginning in 2013, the Egyptian state launched a massive campaign to brand the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, to systematically imprison leadership and to destroy the organization’s capacity as a political and social organization. In the process, human rights protections dramatically receded in Egypt, forcing remaining members of the Brotherhood underground or into exile. Simultaneously, the Brotherhood was pursued outside Egypt, particularly in Saudi Arabia and a number of Gulf countries, as Gulf leaders provided the new military regime in Egypt with budgetary support.
This dramatic turn of events, which took the Arab world’s most prominent and popular Islamist group from the heights of governance to a position where it was forcibly and irremediably excluded from normal politics, has deeply affected the organization’s capacity and incentives to participate in regular political processes. A similar process occurred with the Islamist Salvation Front (FIS), which won elections in Algeria in the early 1990s, and triggered a long and brutal civil war in that country. While there are as of yet no strong signs that civil war looms for Egypt, it is clear that perceptions of injustice coupled with exclusion from the political process have altered the incentives for Islamists in Egypt in a way that could produce militancy.
Trend #2: State Failure and the Rise of Islamist “State-Building”
A second trend that has become more pronounced in the Arab world since 2011 is state failure. This has been most prominent in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. State failure is marked by the inability of the state to provide security and basic state goods such as sanitation, transport, education and health facilities. As central governments have lost control over territory and have lost their monopoly over the use of violence, Islamist groups have been the most prominent of those who have stepped in to fill the breach. Islamists have competitors in the form of tribes and ethnic groups, but they have found it easier than these groups to secure external funding, weaponry and fighters, many of which have come from abroad and have rallied around a pan-Islamic identity.
Since 2013, a number of militant Islamist groups have begun to transition away from strategies that seek primarily to destroy or destabilize the state (e.g., in Syria and Iraq) to groups that seek to monopolize violence over territory that they control. While they still see existing states as rivals to be challenged, they have discovered that they have the ability to build organizational and economic capacity to rule territory and to distribute patronage to their political clients. These militants have both rejected the participatory political norms of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the anarchic tendencies of the al-Qaeda franchise in favor of norms based in militia-based governance. This brand of militancy requires the development of broader ideology of governance than al-Qaeda possesses, as well as resources that can be managed to produce a regular income.
Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip provided early territorial-based models of militant Islamist governance, but it has now spread through large parts of the Levant and Mesopotamia, as well as into parts of Libya and Yemen. The rise of the Islamic State that crosses the traditional Syrian and Iraqi border territory is the most expansive of these new models, governing at present close to 8 million people and commanding large economic and military resources. The Syrian conflict has led other Islamist groups to adopt a similar model on a smaller scale. Likewise, large parts of Libya and Yemen are now controlled by Islamist militias.
What distinguishes these groups from other Islamist groups is their ability to incentivize populations living under their control (through good governance, extortion or fear) to submit to their authority and often to participate in providing security or governance. They reject the Westphalian state system in favor of often unorthodox models of “Islamic” state governance, borrowing many of the tools of modern state systems but rejecting the legitimizing norms of these states. As these new political orders increasingly challenge international norms and the states in which they operate, their ability to maintain resource flows and territorial control will remain an open question.
Trend #3: Islamists as Actors in Sectarian Proxy Wars
The enormously destructive conflict in Syria has become a catalyst for a new level of proxy conflict between Middle Eastern actors, most notably between the dominantly Sunni countries of the Arab Gulf and Shiite Iran. This international conflict using local proxies has shaped how Islamist groups are funded and behave, leading to increasing Islamist militancy and to the development of sectarian ideologies.
As the Syrian opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad evolved from a dominantly non-violent campaign to a militant one, arms and resources to Sunni combatants flowed into the country from the Arab Gulf. When the competition between fragmented rebel groups for external funding intensified, they often sought to distinguish themselves from competing groups through their ideology, which in many cases came to mirror the anti-Shiite tendencies of dominant private and government funders. Active Iranian funding for the Assad regime gave the Syrian conflict an increasingly sectarian cast, which had been the case for some time in Iraq. By 2013, as the Iraqi and Syrian rebellions began to overlap in their organization, Islamists on both sides began to view the civil wars in these countries as existential sectarian conflicts. The Islamic State’s dramatic territorial gains in Iraq during 2014 have further aggravated the sectarian tendencies of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, and Shiite militias have been deployed throughout much of the country to counter the real and urgent threat from Sunni militants.
Sectarianism in Syria has led to Islamist violence across sectarian lines in neighboring Lebanon, as Sunni militants have targeted Hezbollah positions. Yemen has also seen violent clashes between mainstream Sunni Islamists (Islah) and the Shiite Zaydi Houthi movement, which have spread into the capital, Sanaa. Both countries remain at risk of civil war, which would likely fall along Sunni-Shiite lines. The ongoing funding of militants with highly sectarian ideologies by sympathetic external actors leaves Islamist groups in many parts of the Arab world more militant, well-funded, diverse and sectarian in their ideology than prior to the Arab uprisings. This is a trend that has already led to deep polarization across Islamist groups and will take many years to reverse.
Trend #4: Political Learning Continues
Despite the increasing levels of government repression, militancy and sectarianism experienced by Islamist groups since 2012, a number of Islamist groups have adjusted their strategies to limit their exposure to these trends and to remain relevant in their political systems. Just as the initial Arab uprisings created a large demonstration effect for protest movements throughout the Arab world, the deeply negative political developments in many Arab countries have led to increasing caution and political learning among Islamist groups in neighboring countries.
Islamist groups in countries such as Algeria and Jordan have chosen not to lead a major challenge against their governments, in part because of the negative lessons of Islamist activism from the 1990s civil war in Algeria and the contemporary civil war in Jordan’s neighbor Syria. Likewise, Islah in Yemen is operating in a context where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula plays a militant role. As a result, Islah has sought to frame its ideology in a way that will avoid charges of militancy and allow it to capture some of the spoils of the post-Ali Abdullah Saleh political transition.
Perhaps the most interesting political learning has been demonstrated by the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia. Although Egypt watched Tunisia’s uprising against then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali closely, which then led to mass protests in Egypt that unseated Mubarak, Tunisians have observed the military’s removal of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood with great interest. Morsi’s unwillingness or inability to offer significant concessions to his political opponents helped to trigger a military intervention with profoundly negative consequences for the Egyptian group. When public protests subsequently began in Tunisia against the Ennahda government and led to political deadlock, the Islamist government chose to resign in favor of a technocratic government. This helped to preserve the democratic system as well as the movement’s ability to participate within that system. As a result, Ennahda maintained its political reputation and organization within the Tunisian system. In Morocco, a similar process has unfolded since the Islamist PJD won elections in November 2011. While the party was criticized by many Islamists for being too conciliatory to the palace in a system that clearly favors the institutions of monarchy, it has maintained influence within that system in part due to its political conservativism.
As Islamist militancy leads to increasing conflict, and as the consequences of increased government repression become more apparent, many mainstream Islamist groups in functioning states are likely to exercise increasing caution in their political behavior in the near term, learning from the current political disorder in the Arab world.
These four trends have been deeply influential on the evolution of Islamist movements in a short period, and they are likely to be lasting in their effects. Unlike the fragile political transitions of 2011-12, which were subject to a range of political forces that worked against their success and stability, the destructive trends in large parts of the Arab world since 2012 are much harder to reverse.
This is primarily because they have led to the dismantling of important forces that take a long time to build. These earlier, but fragile, forces include the democratic interest and participation of Islamist groups, cross-sectarian coalitions that support state governance, and even state capacity itself. Both state and nation have fractured in many parts of the Arab world since 2012, and neither will be reconstituted except in the long-term. This has led many Islamist groups to face permanent exclusion from their states and societies, or to try to re-create state and society on their own terms by force.
Neither of those scenarios augurs well for the future of Islamist groups in the Arab world, and will lead many Islamist leaders to make difficult choices in the near term. If Islamists can continue to play a constructive role in Tunisia, Morocco or even Iraq by channeling Islamic norms of justice on behalf of national interests, then they may yet play a role in the urgent task of nation building. If, however, either narrow ideological interests or exclusion from the political process prevent Islamist groups from contributing to the processes of nation, state, or regime-building in the region, they will likely remain but one more contribution to the ongoing dissolution of the Arab world’s political order.
Quinn Mecham is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of “Institutional Origins of Islamist Political Mobilization” (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). He is co-editor of “Islamist Parties and Political Normalization in the Muslim World” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
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