In Focus: The Autumn of Arab Islamists

In Focus: The Autumn of Arab Islamists

Humble election results and the weakening intellectual and organizational structure of current Islamist movements beg the question.
The decline began in Morocco, when the Justice and Development Party failed to gain a parliamentary majority in the Sept. 7 elections, contrary to speculations about the party’s ability to run the government. Instead it came second place after the Independence Party, thus remaining the main opposition body.

The next blow was to the Jordanian Islamic Action Front Party, which failed miserably at the polls during the parliamentary elections held on Nov. 20 where they merely claimed 6 seats, compared to 17 out of 110 seats in 2003.

And on Nov. 29 in Algeria, The Algerian Movement for Peaceful Community came fourth in municipal elections, raking in only 10 percent of the 13,891 municipal council seats.

In the meantime, recently empowered Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine continue to face many challenges.

This decline of Arab Islamists is not necessarily caused by their tense relationship with Arab governments, but is more rooted in the ability of Arab Islamist currents to boost their legitimacy and strengthen their overall presence within Arab societies.

On one hand most Arab Islamist movements suffer from a state of intellectual senility, as nothing new has been introduced in their political programs for more than 25 years. They continue to raise the same slogans and adopt the same ideas which mostly rely on emotional appeal, lacking the ability to transform the movements into realistic political programs.

Yet the age of sloganeering and grandiose ideology has long gone. This change was accompanied by the increase in social awareness in many Arab countries, resulting from the past three year’s openness that has contributed to improving the overall political culture for Arab citizens.

This intellectual senility is evident in the discourse of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood group. The controversy surrounding their political program vis-à-vis issues like equality and citizenship, and their inability to overcome their ideological heritage regarding women and Copts, is sufficient proof of that.

Further compounding these challenges are internal divisions between the Brotherhood’s conservative currents and the group’s reformist pragmatic ones, which seek to interact with the new generation through objective proposals.

This intellectual crisis can also be seen in the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, where the unambiguous division between hawks and dove is apparent in their relationship with the government and their take on regional ties with movements like Hamas.

 These divisions hindered their public image on the Jordanian street contributing directly to the poor performance of Islamist movement candidates, hence reducing the potential chances in the past elections.

Such changes are also obvious within Hamas, where some within the group argue that the movement must admit to having made a mistake when by taking over Gaza, calling desperately for restoring the situation to how it was before the June 25, 2007.

 On one side of the divide is Ghazi Hamad, the official spokesperson for Ismail Haniya’s government and a key representative of this current. Yet he was recently been dismissed for criticizing Hamas’s performance in an article he published. Moderate Ahmed Youssef, Haniya’s ex-consultant, also belongs in this camp

The hard-line current is represented by Mahmoud Zahar, Saied Seyam and Sami Abou-Zohri, who reject any notion of Hamas backing down.

The stagnation and organizational paralysis of Islamist movements have rendered them unable to renew their blood. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, is currently experiencing a “muted” explosion due to the stifling of the younger generations, the domination of the old guard and those who support them in key organizational positions.

The spring of Arab Islamists might be waning, as did the short-lived “springs” of democrats, liberals and secularists.

It is unfair however, to regard these developments as a victory for the unjust and tyrannical systems in the Arab world, inadvertently encouraging their continuity. The seeds of change that were planted in the heart of Arab societies over the past three years may still bear fruit with the advent of an Arab generation which believes in the inevitability of democracy and are able to attain it.