A great paper by Shadi Hamid which expresses in a far more articulate and well-researched way an impression I’ve had for some time now – that Islamist parties, far from chafing with frustration at repressive political systems and just itching to seize power for themselves, actually aren’t all that keen on political power. Hamid takes this even further and argues convincingly that they lose elections on purpose.
I had a lot of conversations with people at the time of and just after the Egyptian revolution who had been suckered by the bete noire of an ‘Islamist takeover’. The revolution was great, but wouldn’t Islamist groups take the opportunity to seize power and turn Alexandria into Riyadh-on-Sea? It didn’t seem to fit with what I had seen of the Brotherhood in the past. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a very diverse group – some want political power, some would rather focus on youth groups and health insurance, some want to proselytise. Some just wanna hang out in casualwear and use social media and then grab a Cilantro with their bros! The overlap and tension between those factions was interesting to watch in Egypt before the revolution, limited as they were by the controlled political space under Mubarak, and is going to be interesting in the months to come as that space widens a little more. And they’re not the only Islamist group in Egypt either – they’re distinct from the Salafis, in themselves a very heterogenous group, and there are also a sizeable number of people who would probably like to see a more ‘Islamic’ society but are set against a religious government.
For years, the Brotherhood campaigned hard in Egypt without ever expecting to win power or even win many seats. That this is within their grasp is shown by the 2005 elections, when Hosny briefly relaxed his vice-like grip and they won 88 seats, to the horror of the Bush administration who realised they may have promoted democracy just a little too hard. This is because they entered the political sphere, not necessarily hoping to seize power, but to add their voice to political discourse in Egypt; for in a system like Egyptian elections under Mubarak, opposition groups campaigned in order to shift the balance that tiniest bit their way, to make sure their voice was heard even if it didn’t mean bums on seats in the Shura Council.
The recent uprisings in the Middle East have thrown the spotlight on Islamist groups – as they’re often the best-organised opposition groups in the Arab world, they might be expected to be at the forefront of protest. Yet, while participation of individuals within those groups might be significant, as organisations they have been fairly cautious. The IAF in Jordan, for example, have been observed chanting ‘the people want the reform of the regime,’ a slightly watered-down version of the ubiquitous ‘the people want the downfall of the regime’ which spread from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. This is characteristic of Islamist groups which for years have toed the line when it comes to authoritarian regimes, fearful of too much change to the status quo (and, of course, fearing crackdowns and repression should they suddenly become too popular).
So those worried about an Islamist takeover in Egypt or anywhere else should think again. Despite the huge role they could play in the development of democracy in the region, it will take a while for Islamist groups to step out of their comfort zone – organising, campaigning, and losing.
P.S. When it comes to the MB in Egypt, this guy knows what is up.