Growing in Crisis

Growing in Crisis

Earlier this month the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut organised a workshop with Islamist leaders and Arab parliamentary members on what has been learned so far from their participation in peaceful political processes. Participants included representatives from the Justice and Development Party from Morocco, the Algerian Movement for the Society of Peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front from Jordan, the Yemeni Reform Rally, the Bahraini Al-Wefaq (Concord) Society, and the Islamic Constitutional Party in Kuwait. Their discussions centred around two topics: first was an assessment of Islamists” experiences in electoral processes and parliamentary life and the repercussions of these experiences on political life in general and on the relationship between their parties, ruling elites and other, non-religious, opposition parties; second was their conception of the relationship between Islamic proselytising and philanthropic activities and Islamist political participation and the types of organisational/structural changes that reflect developments in this relationship over recent years.

Although the Islamist participants at the roundtable conceded that they had failed to promote democratic reforms in their countries through democratic mechanisms, they still maintained that participation in the political process is the only option and that they remain strategically committed to this. If this is the case, then the alternative of withdrawing from political participation and reverting to violence, which has reportedly been gaining currency on the fringes of these parties and movements, does not actually enjoy a solid base of support within them. The Islamist parties and movements have several reasons for remaining committed to participatory politics. In view of the weakness of other opposition groups, their parliamentary blocs are essential for maintaining some kind of check on ruling executive authorities and for airing alternative views to those of the ruling party. Secondly, fielding themselves in local and national elections enables them to extend and solidify their grassroots bases and to generate a broader field for the systematic expression of their constituencies” religious, social, economic and political demands. Thirdly, political engagement offers the invaluable opportunity for developing new party cadres and honing their skills in electoral and parliamentary mechanisms.

Naturally, the relative weight of these motives varies from one country to the next. For example, the regulatory factor is foremost in the minds of the Bahraini Wefaq and Yemeni Reform Rally parties, both of which are the main opposition groups in their countries, as well as of the Kuwaiti Islamic Constitution Party, which has recently succeeded in taking part in some short-lived cabinets. In Algeria and Morocco, by contrast, Islamist parties are more concerned with influencing the direction of public policy whether from the position of a parliamentary opposition bloc or more directly as dominant members of local municipalities. Indeed, Algeria”s Society of Peace movement has been in a relatively strong position in this regard, as the third largest parliamentary bloc (with 51 seats in the National Assembly) and with control over the administration of several local directorates.

In Egypt and Jordan, although the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front both have a parliamentary presence, albeit of different weight (the Egyptian Brotherhood holds 88 out of 454 seats in the People”s Assembly whereas the Islamic Action Front occupies only six out of the 110 seats in the Jordanian parliament), the antagonistic relationship between them and the central authorities compels them to continually take as much advantage as possible of the dynamics of participatory politics in order to sustain organised contact with their grassroots bases and systematically express their demands.

More importantly, however, is while irrevocably committed to political participation, the Islamist parties and movements are acutely conscious of the need to improve their performance in this framework in view of the relatively meagre progress in pushing towards democratic reform.

Morocco”s Justice and Development Party, whose popularity dwindled in the 2007 elections (even though it gained four additional parliamentary seats bringing its bloc up to 46 out of 324 seats) and which, therefore, found itself eliminated again in the Independence Party”s ruling government coalition, is now actively campaigning to extend its base of support to new sectors of society. In particular, it is targeting the urban middle class and the rural poor, both of which had formerly remained outside its reach and more attracted to the left-wing parties, particularly the Socialist Federation which is currently a partner in the ruling coalition. Towards this end, the Moroccan Islamist party is pursuing three strategies. It is giving greater priority to economic and social policies over religious and identity concerns in its platform; its parliamentary bloc is pushing more intensively for comprehensive constitutional reform aimed at gradually reducing the powers of the monarchical executive and promoting a more effective balance of powers; and thirdly, confidence-building with the left through partial alliances and/or power-sharing at the municipal level in some areas.

The Kuwaiti Islamist Constitution movement, the centre faction of the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, and the Yemeni Reform Rally are similarly devoting greater attention to matters of constitutional reform, to which testify the recent discourse and parliamentary performance of the three parties. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Bahraini Wefaq Society (or at least portions of these organisations) are working to reach an understanding with the ruling elites in their countries over the conditions for Islamist participation in politics. In Egypt, such an understanding could pave the way to a diffusion of the current tensions between the government and the Brotherhood, whereas in Bahrain it would promote a more effective parliamentary presence of the moderate Wefaq movement, thereby enhancing stability in Bahrain by providing a counterbalance to other Shia groups that are dissatisfied with current political arrangements there. In contrast to these strategic moves, the Algerian Society of Peace is currently in the grips of mounting tensions between its senior members which, in the past few days, have given rise to internal rifts that threaten to cost the party considerable losses in its political leverage and popularity.

The experiences and views of the participants differed markedly with regards to the second focal area of the workshop, the relationship between proselytising/ philanthropic work and political engagement. Whereas for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Yemeni Reform Rally the two areas of activities are closely intertwined, the other Islamist parties and movements are strongly inclined towards a functional separation between the two. The discrepancy stems not only from ideological choices but also from the particular legal, political and social contexts in which they operate. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood”s continued status as an officially banned organisation hampers any serious consideration on the part of its leadership of the possibilities of effecting a functional differentiation between its political and religious activities. Indeed, if anything, the qualitative surge in its political engagement since the 2005 legislative elections has deepened the interconnection between proselytising, philanthropic and political aspects, to the extent that the largest segment of the Brotherhood parliamentary bloc consists of individuals with a proselytising background and that the legally sanctioned philanthropic bodies connected with the Brotherhood play the most important role in the communications between the organisation, its parliamentary members and its grassroots bases. Moreover, the strength and historical depth of the proselytising/ philanthropic component of the Muslim Brotherhood”s activities in Egypt, compared to their relatively recent (since the 1980s) experience in parliamentary politics further militate against the type of functional separation that Islamist movements in other countries have achieved.

In Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait, Islamists have gained the right to establish legitimate political parties and associations, which, in turn, has given them incentive to effect functional differentiations (of varying degrees) between their political and their proselytising/philanthropic activities, enabling those engaged in the former to focus more effectively and flexibly on political issues.

In all events, whether or not they have introduced such a differentiation, Islamist organisations participating in political life, like other strongly ideological movements, continue to face the challenge of striking a balance between what it takes to sustain the credibility of the religious banner as their primary raison d”être and source of popularity and what it takes to engage with other sectors of society that do not necessarily share their ideological outlook. Only then will they be able to break through the 20 per cent barrier that seems to be the general ceiling of their electoral victories. Still, in spite of the Islamists” current crisis with respect to their participation in democratic processes, one must nevertheless acknowledge the most important result of this engagement. Their parties and movements have matured and their strategic and organisational choices have developed in such a way as to strengthen their commitment to peaceful political action and safeguard delicate social stability in the Arab world.

The Source

This commentary is reprinted with permission from  Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.