Between ideology and tactics
Moderate Islamist parties and movements that have adopted the strategic option of taking part in official political life in the Arab world are up against a range of ideological and tactical obstacles associated with the extent to which they are structurally and doctrinally democratic, on the one hand, and the degree of their commitment to democratic standards and processes in practice on the other.
Ideologically, moderate Islamist movements and parties are torn between their faith that the law regulating the bonds between the state, society and the individual must be founded upon the word of God — i.e. Islamic Sharia law — and the concept of a civil democratic government whereby laws are formulated on the basis of majority vote in a legislature created by the people by means of free and fair elections. It is a formidable conundrum. How can parties that describe themselves as Islamist relinquish the principle of Sharia law as the basis of legislation if they want to maintain their credibility in the public eye and their popular bases of support? Conversely, how can a party that calls itself democratic strive to place its candidates in parliament through the electoral process and work together with other opposition parties to press for a more open political system without committing itself to the principles of plurality and majority rule and the mechanisms for applying these principles?
The tension between the religious vision and the democratic concept, which no Islamist party or movement in the Arab world has been able to resolve, is at the root of the ongoing conflict within these organisations between ideologues who are constantly pushing to expand the realm of Sharia law in the legal and judicial systems in their countries and pragmatists who tend towards more liberal interpretations of the “Islamic state”. The controversy extends beyond the question of the source of law to include the extent to which religion should play a part in the public sphere, and acceptance of the principle of plurality outside of the political context. Of particular concern are the questions of freedom of belief, the interplay between proselytising and politics in Islamist organisational structures and activities, and the resultant confusion between identity-based rhetoric and elements of a political agenda in Islamist appeals and practices.
Tactically, Islamist parties and movements find themselves regularly forced to reconsider their commitment to participate in the official political process. After all, they are operating in countries whose ruling elites themselves are not committed to democratic procedures or standards and, indeed, avail themselves of all possible autocratic means to obviate the growth of the importance of elections and of the role of opposition forces. Consequently, Islamists, like all other opposition movements, must determine whether participating in elections at their various presidential, legislative and municipal levels is worthwhile or whether the likelihood of tampering with the electoral process and falsifying the will of the electorate is so high as to render competing in such elections an exercise in futility. For Islamists, this dilemma is even more acute since the ruling elites fear them more than their liberal and leftist adversaries and, therefore, make it even tougher for Islamist movements and parties to participate in the political process.
Indeed, there are tactical risks to political participation under the domination of authoritarian or semi- authoritarian ruling elites. Taking part in elections that offer only the prospect of limited games can weaken the Islamists” position since their poor returns in the polls could be used to portray them as marginal and ineffective forces. They also risk alienating large segments of their grassroots support that believe that taking part in elections under current conditions is both ideologically and strategically wrong. The risk is compounded by the fact that the more it becomes apparent that the returns on political participation are low the greater grows the influence of critics of this strategy within the Islamist movement. On the other hand, taking part in the political process does offer Islamists the chance to demonstrate that they are committed to democratic standards and procedures. They can say that in spite of all the obstacles ruling regimes have put in their way they are not only dedicated democrats but also capable of scoring gains through the ballot box. In addition, boycotting elections deprives Islamists of the opportunity of making their presence felt in the realms of legislative and municipal assemblies, in which they could affect, if only in a limited capacity, public affairs.
There is another tactical dilemma Islamists face when participating in the political process. How many candidates should they field at any one time? Theoretically, Islamists like other opposition parties, want to gain the greatest number of seats possible in an assembly. However, the record of contemporary Arab history offers sobering advice. The electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria in 1991 and the Hamas victory in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006 cautions Islamist movements to keep their electoral aspirations modest and to not strive to sweep the polls. The consequences can be disastrous: the army”s seizure of power in Algeria and the international boycott of Gaza and the ongoing rift between Fatah and Hamas. Islamist movements and parties seem to have heeded this caution, reducing the number of candidates so as to allay the fear of the advent of Islamic governments via the ballot box.
For example, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood”s political party, the Islamic Action Front, fielded 36 candidates for 80 parliamentary seats in 1993, 30 for 110 seats in 2003, and 22 for the same number of vacancies in 2007. Similarly, in the 2005 legislative elections the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had 144 candidates running as independents whereas in the Shura Council elections in 2007 only 19 Muslim Brotherhood candidates competed for the 88 available vacancies. Yet despite the Islamists” self-imposed restrictions on their electoral participation, ruling elites and segments of the liberal and left-wing opposition continue to harbour fears of Islamist intentions. It appears that the only way Islamists in favour of political participation can allay such fears is to resign themselves to keeping their electoral gains to a minimum.