Islamism Is Ready for a Comeback

The death of political Islam in the Middle East has been greatly exaggerated.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A Muslim believer reads Koran before breaking his fast at the Al-Azhar mosque on May 12, 2019, as they mark the 1079th anniversary of the establishment of the mosque, during the holy month of Ramadan in Egypt's capital Cairo.
A Muslim believer reads Koran before breaking his fast at the Al-Azhar mosque on May 12, 2019, as they mark the 1079th anniversary of the establishment of the mosque, during the holy month of Ramadan in Egypt's capital Cairo.
A Muslim believer reads Koran before breaking his fast at the Al-Azhar mosque on May 12, 2019, as they mark the 1079th anniversary of the establishment of the mosque, during the holy month of Ramadan in Egypt's capital Cairo. MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP via Getty Images

In 1999, back when I still lived in Cairo, I spoke with an U.S. diplomat at a social event about all things Egypt, including my research interests in political Islam. Toward the end of the conversation, he told me “Islamism was dead” because the Egyptian government had finally broken the back of a low-level Islamist extremist insurgency, adding he did not know why academics were interested in the topic.

I suspect this foreign service officer would draw a similar conclusion today. The last few years have not been good for Islamists, but Islamism is not dead. Quite the contrary. Given the prevailing political and social conditions in the Middle East, Islamism—especially its extremist variety—seems likely to pose an even bigger challenge to regimes across the region.

After the uprisings that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, the general view in Washington and elsewhere was that Islamists were poised to accumulate power in more open and democratic societies throughout the region. Like almost everything else from that period, few predictions have turned out to be correct. Last July, Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement was a primary target of Tunisian President Kais Saied’s palace coup that dissolved parliament—where Islamist Rached Ghannouchi served as speaker—and suspended parts of the constitution. Since then, the Tunisian president has further consolidated his power. Not long after Saied began rolling back his country’s halting—though nevertheless promising—transition to democracy, Morocco held general elections. There, the Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) were almost wiped out. They lost 113 of 125 seats in parliament, ending that country’s decadelong experiment with an Islamist-led government.

In 1999, back when I still lived in Cairo, I spoke with an U.S. diplomat at a social event about all things Egypt, including my research interests in political Islam. Toward the end of the conversation, he told me “Islamism was dead” because the Egyptian government had finally broken the back of a low-level Islamist extremist insurgency, adding he did not know why academics were interested in the topic.

I suspect this foreign service officer would draw a similar conclusion today. The last few years have not been good for Islamists, but Islamism is not dead. Quite the contrary. Given the prevailing political and social conditions in the Middle East, Islamism—especially its extremist variety—seems likely to pose an even bigger challenge to regimes across the region.

After the uprisings that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, the general view in Washington and elsewhere was that Islamists were poised to accumulate power in more open and democratic societies throughout the region. Like almost everything else from that period, few predictions have turned out to be correct. Last July, Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement was a primary target of Tunisian President Kais Saied’s palace coup that dissolved parliament—where Islamist Rached Ghannouchi served as speaker—and suspended parts of the constitution. Since then, the Tunisian president has further consolidated his power. Not long after Saied began rolling back his country’s halting—though nevertheless promising—transition to democracy, Morocco held general elections. There, the Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) were almost wiped out. They lost 113 of 125 seats in parliament, ending that country’s decadelong experiment with an Islamist-led government.

Of course, Egypt’s Islamists have been on the run since 2013. They have either been killed, jailed, or living in exile in London; Doha, Qatar; Washington, and Istanbul—trying to mount opposition to the Egyptian government with little measurable effect. There is a new twist in their saga, however. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had declared themselves leaders of the Muslim world and provided safe harbor for the Egyptian and Syrian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as hosted members of Hamas’s military wing in Istanbul. Yet, after a decade, the Turkish government’s needlessly aggressive and provocative foreign policy had run its course; now with Turkey isolated and reeling from a currency crisis, Erdogan has sought reconciliation with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel—an axis of anti-Islamists. The price Turkey will have to pay, especially with Egypt and Israel, is to give up the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

That leaves the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other groups with Qatar, which will continue to be a place that hosts Islamists of all stripes so governments that do not want to talk to them directly can still maintain access to them. That is something, but it is far cry from where Islamists were after the uprisings. Yet, just as the Islamists were not dead in 1999, they are not dead now.

It is not at all clear to what extent people in different countries have repudiated the Islamist agenda. To be sure, in Morocco, the PJD got stomped out, but it is hard to draw too many conclusions from this single election given the particularities of Moroccan politics and the power of the monarchy to undermine the party’s ability to advance its worldview. Egypt had what the government and its supporters contended was the “biggest protest in human history” in 2013 against then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which coincided with the coup that brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power. Without a doubt, it was a repudiation of the Morsi government, but given the way the Muslim Brotherhood had become interwoven with Egyptian society, the group likely continues to command prestige even with the regime’s efforts to recast history in a way that renders the group alien to Egypt. In Tunisia, the Ennahda Movement has dedicated ideological opponents, though the party did command support from a significant percentage of the population. Its current predicament has less to do with a measure of its ideas than the machinations of an authoritarian leader who is determined to grab power (even if he also enjoys support). And in Turkey, it is less that Erdogan has given up on his worldview than the fact that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas terrorists are victims of Turkey’s domestic economic and geopolitical realities.

There is no doubt the setbacks Islamists face are real, but a guiding principle that all such groups share is they have time on their hands. They may seem to have lost their way and relevance at the moment, but they will adapt and evolve. In other words, it is unlikely they will give up their struggle now. Although it may seem odd to nonexpert observers, there are ways in which regimes in the Middle East are actually helping Islamists. All the problems of Arab politics that made Islamists attractive in the first place still exist or are progressively worse in the resurgence of post-uprising authoritarianism. Economic opportunity remains limited, avenues for political expression are closed, leaders do not have an emotionally appealing vision for the future, and brutality is a hallmark of political control.

This is not to suggest that Islamists in power would be model democrats. However, as long as there is a persistent gap between what governments promise and what people experience in their daily lives, Islamists will enjoy potential opportunities.

The problem is that as much as Islamist groups will evolve and adapt, governments in the region are still a step ahead. Leaders are determined never to allow what happened between late 2010 and 2012 to happen again. Sure, in some places like Kuwait, Jordan, and even now Israel, Islamists have access to power, but access does not mean the ability to wield it. Instead, these groups are subordinated to a system that is intended to keep them tame. In a place like Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood does not even have this opportunity as reconciliation is beyond what Sisi is willing to contemplate. Tunisia is not near where Egypt is, but Saied is demonstrating the folly of playing by the rules. As Islamists (and other oppositionists) around the Middle East are afforded fewer and fewer ways to express their grievances and articulate their worldviews, it provides an opening for extremists to fill the gap, leading inevitably to violence. Critics will argue that to focus on the interaction between the state and the political sphere is to downplay the ideological components of violence. Worldview is certainly part of that explanation, but the appeal of that ideology is also connected to politics.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Islamists’ current status across the region and their relationship to the state and extremists is how familiar it all feels. Some variation of this column could have been written in 1995 or 2005. There has been a lot of change in the Middle East since those years, but the problem of Islamists and politics seems resistant to progress. Diplomats and experts, beware. Declaring the demise of Islamism is both exaggerated and risks becoming yet another bad U.S. assumption about the Middle East.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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