The success of Islamist parties in countries in transition is causing a lot of angst, both among secularists in the region and observers in the West. The questions raised tend to be stark, demanding absolute answers. Is there such a thing as a moderate Islamist party, or do they all aim at eventually setting up a full-fledged Islamic state? Do they accept the values of democracy, rather than simply the electoral process, as a means of gaining power? Would they surrender power if they ever gained control of the government? Would they uphold personal rights or attempt to mold society after their own values?
There are no absolute answers, as ongoing research on the transitions and a recent encounter in Washington between Carnegie scholars and representatives of Islamist parties from Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco suggest. (Parties from Libya and Jordan were also represented in the meeting, but their stances will not be discussed here—they are not in a position of power, and the problems they confront are still quite different).
These largely moderate Islamist parties seem to be evolving rapidly as they learn to navigate through the difficult politics and the uncertain democratic processes of their countries. They are truly works in progress, and their evolution will likely be affected the way secular parties and to a lesser extent the international community react to them.
Islamist parties appear to be truly national. There does not seem to be an overarching “Islamist International” to which they all belong, and they do not even seem to be in limited contact with each other. At the conference in particular, we felt that we knew more about them than they know about each other.
The Islamist parties that participated in the encounter—the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) in Morocco—have common ideological roots in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. The ideas propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood spread quickly to other countries in the Middle East, and organizations inspired by it arose throughout North Africa and the Levant. Despite the spread of the ideology, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood remained a national organization, deeply involved in domestic proselytizing and charitable activities, and in periodic clashes with successive regimes.
Muslim Brotherhood–inspired organizations in other countries always had a similar domestic focus. It is only among the more radical, violent groups that international networks developed, for example to recruit volunteers for jihad in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Conference discussions showed that this domestic focus is still very evident today. Though Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco—which are now in the government or at least in parliament—face similar policy issues, there is no indication that they are consulting with each other on how to address them, or that they are particularly interested in finding out what other parties are doing. Each party is wrapped up in the domestic problems and the specific political dynamics of its own country.
The issue of sharia illustrates the point. Whether or how the constitution should mention sharia is the hottest ideological issue that Arab countries in transition face. It looms large in the relationship between Islamists and secular parties and is a major cause of anxiety among the secularists. Each of the three parties has different solutions, very much rooted in the politics of its country.
In Morocco, where the new constitution was written by a commission appointed by the king, the PJD did not lobby for the inclusion of sharia in the text. Instead it accepted the definition of Morocco as a Muslim state and Islam as the religion of the state as good enough—though some PJD officials claim that they would have preferred language defining Morocco as a “civil state with an Islamic reference.” They supported freedom for other religions as well. Ennahda also decided to forego any mention of sharia, settling instead for the neutral language of the 1956 constitution that simply states that “Islam is [Tunisia’s] religion.”
In Egypt, however, where the constitution has not yet been written, sharia will certainly be prominently mentioned as a source of legislation. The simple reason is that all major parties and all presidential candidates support the idea explicitly in their platforms.
Islamist parties, with the partial exception of the Moroccan PJD, still show signs of their previous isolation, both within their own countries and internationally. Government repression and the policies of the United States and European countries forced them to stay in their own bubbles. Not all Islamist leaders at this point are familiar and comfortable with the world outside the bubble.
Domestically, Islamist movements and political parties have experienced long periods of repression, with many of their leaders exiled or imprisoned repeatedly or for long periods. For example, in Egypt, Khairat al-Shater, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, was imprisoned for a total of more than twelve years between 1992 and 2011, while FJP vice chairman Essam el-Erian spent the equivalent of eight years in jail between 1981 and 2010. In Tunisia, the current prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, spent a total of sixteen years in jail after 1990, ten of them in solitary confinement. Ennahda Chairman Rached Ghannouchi was imprisoned in 1981 and again in 1987 for a total of four years, spending another twenty-two years in exile.
The exception to this history of repression and isolation is the PJD in Morocco, which was allowed by the king to become an officially registered political party in 1992 and has operated legally and openly since then, gaining exposure to the rest of Moroccan society and the world. But the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was never granted official recognition nor was it allowed to form a political party until after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. While it found ways to participate in elections through deals with other political parties or through independent candidates, it could not function as a normal political organization. In Tunisia, Ennahda, then called the Islamic Tendency Movement, sought recognition as a political party in 1981 but was rejected, and in response to its growing popularity, many of its leaders were exiled or imprisoned. The organization only started functioning normally after the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, becoming a legally registered party in March 2011.
The forced isolation imposed on Islamist parties in the past makes it difficult to interpret whether some of the positions that most upset secularists in these countries and outsiders are truly radical statements, to be taken literally, or the result of naïveté about how certain statements resonate outside the confines of the Islamist community. Examples abound: Prime Minister Jebali, apparently in an attempt to reassure his audience that Tunisia would move toward a bright future, talked about the coming of the sixth caliphate, leading many to question Ennahda’s moderation and its commitment to the Tunisian state. And some officials in both the Muslim Brotherhood and in Ennahda suggested at one point that tourists would have to abide by stricter rules about attire and alcohol consumption, only to beat a hasty retreat after tourist operators set them straight about the realities of the industry.