Islamists between Regime and Electorate’

There is an urgent need for a new conceptualization of how Islamist groups and parties interact with and negotiate a rapidly changing political environment. Today, the electoral map looks considerably different than it did ten or even five years ago. Islamists are making impressive electoral gains throughout the region. Accordingly, alternation of power is no longer simply a theoretical consideration. As realities on the ground change, so too must our method of studying them. The goal of this presentation is to offer the rudiments of a conceptual framework with which to understand Islamist electoral behavior – a framework which can have generalized explanatory power across cases. By focusing on how Islamists respond to a variety of structural pressures, this presentation aims to illuminate broader questions about ideological politics and comparative democratization in the Middle East.


In interpreting the behavior of Islamist parties, what are the patterns which can be deduced from a given number of political acts over a period of time? What are the primary determinants of Islamist political behavior? These questions are not necessarily new. They have been dealt with before, although rarely in an explicit, systematic manner. In order to situate the acts of Islamist groups within an explanatory framework, I propose a central distinction between the playing of “regime games” and “electoral games,” to use Scott Mainwaring’s useful formulation.[1] It is critical to understand what pressures Islamist parties are responding do at any given moment. Are they responding to the regime or are they responding to the electorate, or, more likely, is it a confluence of the two? (The interplay between political “games” in electoral authoritarian contexts can be conceptualized as a fluid continuum).


Until recently, Islamist parties were almost wholly concerned with playing regime games. Naturally, when “votes are not the primary currency of politics,” political parties are much more responsive to the regime than the electorate.[2]  But today in the Middle East, elections matter more then ever before. In Egypt, Morocco, and elsewhere, we are witnessing a profound transformation of Islamism from a movement of permanent opposition to a veritable contestant for power. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood won an unprecedented 88 seats. In four years, voters will hold them accountable for their performance. Knowing this, the Brotherhood will have to shift significant attention and resources to the electoral game.


This leads us to the question which is of most concern to us: in those cases where voters – and not the regime – become a primary target “constituency” for Islamist parties, how does their political behavior change? In short, what does the (relative) impending shift from regime games to electoral games mean for, firstly, the potential for Islamist moderation (or radicalization) and, secondly, what does it more broadly mean for the Arab world’s long delayed transition from authoritarian rule toward an uncertain “something else”?


What I refer to as the “moderation thesis” – a less systematic rendering of the “inclusion-moderation hypothesis” – currently dominates the study of democratization in the Middle East. Proponents of this outlook argue that the more democracy there is in a given polity, the more Islamists will internalize democratic values. In other words, the increasing importance of electoral games relative to regime games pushes Islamist groups toward greater moderation. I will question this interpretation by reassessing the causal effects of regime games and electoral games in light of the explanatory framework offered in the beginning of the presentation.


I will also consider a variety of spatial models in which, contrary to predominant assumptions, Islamist parties may, in fact, have to move further to the right in order to appeal to an increasingly conservative electorate. In this respect, looking at the applicability of median voter theory in the Middle Eastern context can help us better account for and explain likely outcomes.   



Presenter Bio


Shadi Hamid is a D.Phil candidate in politics at St. Antony’s College, Oxford (supervisors: James Piscatori and Laurence Whitehead). He is a founding member and Associate at the Washington-DC based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). His articles on US foreign policy and Middle East politics have appeared in the Carnegie Endowment’s Arab Reform Bulletin, The Christian Science Monitor, The American Prospect, The Jerusalem Post, The Daily Star, Insight Turkey, and other publications. Hamid is also the author of forthcoming book chapters on democratization in Jordan. As a former Fulbright Fellow in Amman, Jordan, he conducted extensive research on the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front. Hamid has also served as foreign affairs fellow at the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) as well as an advisor on Muslim outreach to the US State Department.


[1] According to Mainwaring, parties in electoral authoritarian countries play “dual games.” In electoral games, the objective is to “win votes or seats” while in regime games, the objective is to “influence the outcome of conflicts over political regimes.” See Scott Mainwaring, “Party Objectives in Authoritarian Regimes with Elections or Fragile Democracies: A Dual Game,” in Christian Democracy in Latin America: Electoral Competition and Regime Conflicts, ed. Scott Mainwaring and Timothy Scully (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

[2] Ibid, p. 18