Marc Lynch

Spoilt Ballots, or what happens when Islamists don’t get to be democrats

I’ve just published a new article in Abu Dhabi’s Review at the National, which looks at the impact of Arab repression of moderate Islamist movements which have been trying for years to participate in democratic elections.  It puts recent leadership conflicts in Jordan and Egypt in the context of this repression, and tries to sort ...

I’ve just published a new article in Abu Dhabi’s Review at the National, which looks at the impact of Arab repression of moderate Islamist movements which have been trying for years to participate in democratic elections.  It puts recent leadership conflicts in Jordan and Egypt in the context of this repression, and tries to sort out some of the ways that the sustained authoritarian response might be affecting Muslim Brotherhood leadership, cadres, and ideology — and the prospects for democracy as a whole. 



Moderate Islamist movements across the Arab world have made a decisive turn towards participation in democratic politics over the last 20 years. They have developed an elaborate ideological justification for contesting elections, which they have defended against intense criticism from more radical Islamist competitors. At the same time, they have demonstrated a commitment to internal democracy remarkable by the standards of the region, and have repeatedly proved their willingness to respect the results of elections even when they lose.

But rather than welcome this development, secular authoritarian regimes have responded with growing repression. Again and again, successful electoral participation by Islamists has triggered a backlash, often with the consent – if not the encouragement – of the United States. When Hamas prevailed in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the response was boycott and political subversion. When the Egyptian government cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood after elections in 2005, few outsiders objected.

As the door to democracy is slammed in their faces, how have the Islamist groups that embraced participation responded? In some ways, they have passed the test with flying colours. They have remained committed to democratic participation even in the face of massive electoral fraud and harsh campaigns of repression. Their leaders have affirmed their democratic ideals, and have often spoken out to reiterate their ideological and strategic commitment to democracy. Indeed, they have often emerged as the leading advocates for public freedoms and democratic reform. And there is as yet little sign of any such organisation turning to violence as an alternative.

But in other ways, the toll of repression is beginning to show. Doubts about the value of democratic participation inside these movements are growing. Splits in the top ranks have roiled movements in Jordan and Egypt, among others. In many of the cases, a Brotherhood leadership which prefers a moderate, accommodationist approach to the regime has struggled to find a way to respond to the escalating pressures of repression and the closing down of the paths towards democratic participation. In Egypt, frustration over extended detentions of the most moderate leaders have tarnished the coin of those calling for political participation, with a rising trend calling for a retreat from politics and a renewed focus upon social activism and religious work. In Jordan, the influence of those seeking to abandon worthless domestic politics and to focus instead on supporting Hamas has grown.

Critics of the Brotherhood have pointed to these recent struggles as evidence that Islamists cannot be trusted with democracy. But this profoundly misreads the current trends. These crises in fact reflect a delayed response to the blocked promise of democratic participation. The Islamist debate today is not about the legitimacy of democracy – it is about how to respond to frustrated efforts to play the democratic game.

I then look in some detail at the Jordanian and Egyptian cases. Key excerpts:

Following the 2007 electoral debacle, the Brotherhood entered a period of intense internal unrest. It dissolved its Shura Council as penance for its fateful decision to participate in the election. The core issue was over how best to respond to the regime’s repression: through confrontation, or through a retreat and consolidation of the political strategy? In April 2008, the “hawkish” trend won the internal elections to the Shura Council by a single vote, and the pragmatic and domestically-orientated Salem Falahat was replaced by the fiery, Palestine-centric hawk Himmam Said. Said and the new head of the Islamic Action Front, Zaki Bani Arshid, steered the Islamist movement into more direct conflict with the regime, with little success. The reformist trend, led by the soft-spoken intellectual Ruheil Ghuraybeh, avoided open confrontation but advanced an ambitious programme to transform Jordan into a constitutional monarchy.

As the Brotherhood rank and file lost interest in a stalled domestic political process, they were simultaneously galvanised by the electoral success of Hamas and then by the visceral images of Israel’s war on Gaza. The growing interest in Palestinian issues at the expense of Jordanian politics worried not only the regime but also the traditional leadership of the Brotherhood. The leading Jordanian journalist Mohammed Abu Rumman argues that the issue of relations with Hamas has supplanted the traditional “hawk-dove” struggle within the organisation. While both trends support Hamas – “if you are not with Hamas, you are not with the Muslim Brotherhood”, explained one of the “dovish” leaders – they disagree over the appropriate organisational relationship. The “Hamasi” trend supports close ties and the prioritisation of Palestinian issues, and embraces a common Muslim identity over a narrowly Jordanian one. The “reformist” trend insists that Hamas, as the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, should have responsibility for Palestine while the Jordanian Brotherhood must be a national organisation focused upon domestic Jordanian issues.

This crisis came to a head over the issue of Hamas participation in the administrative structures of the Jordanian Brotherhood. Three leading reformists resigned from the Executive Office, triggering an as-yet-unresolved internal crisis that threatens one of the first serious internal splits in the history of the movement. The media has eagerly egged this conflict on; indeed, a number of Brotherhood leaders told me that what made the current crisis unique was not the issues at stake or the intensity of the disagreement, but the fact that for the first time it had become public.

The story of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is many things, but certainly not a story of Islamists retreating from democracy. Similar dynamics can be seen in Egypt, where the Brotherhood’s leadership is similarly divided over how to respond to escalating repression. During multiple trips to Cairo in the last few years, I saw the growing frustration of a generation of reformists who found their every effort to embrace democracy met with force and rejection.


But over time, the pressure began to take its toll. The leadership reined in its freewheeling young bloggers, whose public airing of internal issues was being exploited by the organisation’s opponents. It adopted tougher rhetoric on foreign policy issues such as the Gaza war – attacking the Egyptian government’s enforcement of the blockade of Gaza – in part to rally its demoralised membership. Considerable evidence suggests that the cadres of the organisation were growing disenchanted with politics and preferred to return to the core social and religious mission. And growing voices from inside and outside the movement began to suggest retreating from politics until a more propitious time.

Earlier this month the conflicts inside the Egyptian Brotherhood leapt into the pages of local newspapers, which reported that the movement’s leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, had abruptly resigned his post in protest after conservatives refused to appoint the leading reformist Essam el Erian to an open leadership seat. Akef has denied the reports – but the portrait of a movement in turmoil is clear.

And concludes:

The Jordanian, Egyptian and American governments may see all this as something of a success story: the influence of the Islamists has been curbed, both in formal politics and in the social sector, and the restraint exercised by the Brotherhood leadership has meant the states have not faced a backlash. But this is dangerously short-sighted. The campaigns against Islamists weaken the foundations of democracy as a whole, not just the appeal of one movement, and have had a corrosive effect on public freedoms, transparency and accountability. Regardless of the fortunes of the movements themselves, the crackdown on the Islamists contributes to the wider corruption of public life. The growing frustration within moderate Islamist groups with democratic participation cannot help but affect their future ideological trajectory.

 Sowing disenchantment with democratic politics in the ranks of the Brotherhood could forfeit one of the signal developments in Islamist political thinking of the last few decades. The failure of the movement’s democratic experiment could empower more radical Islamists, including not only terrorist groups but also doctrinaire salafists less inclined to pragmatic politics. The degradation of its organisational strengths could open up space for al Qa’eda and other radical competitors to move in. he alternative to Ismail Haniya might be Osama bin Laden rather than Abu Mazen, and the exclusion of Essam el-Erian may not produce an Ayman Nour.

Read the whole thing here



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