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Islamism and transitional politics

In the heady aftermath of the 2011 uprisings that swept the Arab world from the Maghreb to the Gulf, the unprecedented rise of Islamist parties in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt took many analysts by surprise, earning the accolade of the “Arab Winter”.

Now, four years on, the political terrain in the region looks very different, and with the exception of Tunisia, the Islamist political crescent has waned in many countries, replaced by the radical militancy of groups such as ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra and Libya Dawn. Indeed, in most of the Middle East, the possibility of Islamist movements partaking in democratic political transition seems remote. Having ridden the wave of populist protest to gain power in nominally democratic elections in many countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, the question remains as to why the political parties affiliated to longstanding Islamist movements – Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – have faced such different political consequences in the ensuing years.

One of the reasons for this, suggests Dr Barbara Zollner, a lecturer in Middle East Politics at Birkbeck University, is the different paths these two Islamist organisations took in transforming themselves from broad-based social movements to electable political parties. Speaking at a workshop on Contentious Politics held at the London School of Economics last week, Zollner made the case that “Islamist movements, qua social movements, are governed by rational decision-making processes” and that “as such, they are guided by considerations of political opportunities in making decisions about mobilisations and strategies.”

Forming part of her current research on social movement theory (SMT) and its application to Islamist movements in the Middle East, Zollner makes use of her basic thesis that “Islamist movements are guided, just as secular contenders, by cost and benefit when competing for political power” to drawn a comparison between the political success of the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, and the eclipsing of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt.

Arguing against essentialist or culturalist interpretation of Islamism, which she claims “fails to explain the political behaviours” of such Islamist parties, Zollner instead adopts a rationalist perspective, making use of social movement theory and theories regarding transitional politics in order to analyse the roles of Ennahda and the FJP in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt respectively. What makes these two cases particularly interesting, she says, is that Islamist movements “contributed to a democratisation process in one case, while seemingly hindering democratic development in the other.”

Unlike others before her, who have often attributed the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to a lack of adequate political vision and authority within the movement, or to a semi-essentialised commitment to a specific and messianic brand of Islamist ideology, Zollner adopts an entirely pragmatic approach when dealing with the political demise of the FJP. In this vein, she argues that it was the “incomplete transition from social movement to party” that proved fatal to the Brotherhood in Egypt, in comparison to Ennahda’s relative success in transforming themselves into a viable actor in the Tunisia’s emerging democratic political field.

Drawing on the history of both parties under the previous regimes, Zollner contends that in Tunisia, Ennahda was effectively supressed by Ben Ali, and “was unable to throw its weight as a social movement organisation.” In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, despite being officially banned under Mubarak, adopted what Zollner calls an “accomodationist policy” towards the regime, and was able to thus build up a strong social base by effectively circumventing Mubarak-era attempts to stifle it.

“Acting outside the framework of formal political institutions, [the Muslim Brotherhood] successfully secured a presence in informal political platforms in the course of the last thirty years.”

It was this ability to draw on informal political networks that, ultimately, were to both catapult the Brotherhood to power and ultimately serve to undermine their strategy to form a viable Islamist party. As an entrenched social movement with well-established political structures of its own, the Muslim Brotherhood simply wasn’t able to effectively re-imagine these structures in the form of a political party, says Zollner. The result was that the Brotherhood “were unable to meet the challenge of redefining their organisational identity and reshape their mobilising structures in a way that allowed them to retain their support base… Effectively the MB contributed to fracturing the democratic political spectrum, which in turn opened the opportunity for the military to return to power.”

In contrast, in Tunisia, Ennahda under Ben Ali only had “limited political impact” in the country; a weakness that was paradoxically transformed into a strength in the wake of the 2011 uprising when the movement was able to successfully reimagine itself as a political party in order to partake in the transition to democratic politics. In order to achieve this, Ennahda “adopted a conciliatory tone and one which clearly aimed at participation in formal institutional structures.”

While Zollner’s analysis is certainly interesting – and it is refreshing to have a scholar of the Middle East adopt a pragmatic and rational interpretation of Islamism in the region, rather than simply reducing it to a culturalist or essentialist understanding of “Islam” – there are certain aspects of her argument that remain unconvincing. To say that the Middle East as a region, and Islamism in particular, needs to be approach from a non-essentialist perspective is not to say that entire Western political theories – such as Social Movement Theory – can simply be transposed onto the region. Although some elements of SMT may provide interesting insights into the workings of Islamist parties such as Ennahda and the FJP, to simply attribute the success of the former and failure of the latter to the relative success of transforming an Islamist social movement into a political party seems reductive at best.

Both Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood are complex political and social movements, with rich individual histories that transect local and regional interests, and cannot be boiled down to a simple quasi-statistical model of political success in transitional democratic processes. And while we should rightly be wary of attributing the successes and failures of these political parties to some posited primordialist essence of “Islam”, to entirely ignore the founding ideologies and beliefs of the movements and their members runs the risk of potentially overlooking their very uniqueness in the first place.

Despite such drawbacks, however, Zollner’s argument provides a timely consideration of the complex political forces operating in post-revolutionary situations, and a reminder that we shouldn’t conclude that just because a political actor is “Islamist”, they will not be rational.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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