Islamist Parties In The Arab Region – What Do They Stand For And Should They Be Included?

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The rise in strength and number of Islamist parties in the Arab world leads to question such as, what their policies are, and whether their exclusion is the most productive approach.
The rise in strength and number of Islamist parties in the Arab world leads to questions such as, what their policies are, and whether their exclusion is the most productive approach.

Although the root causes of the Arab Spring were not related to religion, the anti-regime revolts that spread across the region in 2011 resulted in the rise of Islamist parties and brought them to power in some of the Arab world. As an example, in Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party gathered the most votes in the first elections held after the overthrowing of Ben Ali, whilst the Muslim Brotherhood held power in Egypt since 2011 until it was ousted by the army in 2014. Meanwhile, in countries such as Syria, Yemen, and Libya, various Islamist non-state armed groups emerged during the armed conflict, turning the revolts for freedom and dignity into sectarian conflicts.


Many of the Islamist movements that appeared or simply have grown in strength during the Arab Spring can be classified as mass-based religious fundamentalist parties, as they aim to impose strict religious rules. In contrast to denominational mass parties, fundamentalist parties are not pluralistic and do not allow for different interpretations of religion. Contrary to the democratic idea of popular sovereignty, they recognize God as the source of sovereignty. The idea of divine sovereignty seems to contradict with democracy, as does the goal of imposing prohibitions derived from the Qur’anic verses on society as a whole, without distinguishing between individual beliefs. Therefore, fundamentalist parties, as defined, appear to be incompatible with democracy. Yet, on the other hand, would it not be undemocratic to exclude them from elections, and what consequences would that bring?


Five years prior to the Arab Spring, the 2006 Palestinian elections to the Legislative Council (PLC) resulted in the victory of Hamas. The aftermath of the elections raised concerns around the world, as Hamas is not only a political party, but a hybrid organisation – a grass-root sociopolitical government, a political party, and a non-state armed group fighting with Israel. While Fatah kept power in the West Bank, Hamas took control over the Gaza Strip in 2007, claiming legitimacy based on their electoral victory, and declaring that Fatah is simply not willing to accept it. The example of Hamas shows that “when [centralised] and formal state authority is missing or insufficiently strong, alternative providers of governance emerge to either supplement or replace the state altogether.” Whether the so-called international community likes it or not, most of the Palestinian population voted for Hamas in 2006, which might have been caused by the disappointment in the rule of Fatah and the Oslo process, or for other reasons. The question should be asked, therefore – what brought Hamas to power and why the other political actors were not able to respond to the voters’ needs?


There are two main opinions on who votes for the Islamist parties. One suggests that the Islamist parties’ voters are poor and less educated in comparison with more secular voters. Another opinion states that the vast majority of the voters for Islamist parties belong to the middle class, similarly to the party members and that their recruitment is horizontal, not vertical. According to the first opinion, the Islamist voters trade their votes for social services provided by those parties or their charitable organizations. The results of research verifying this hypothesis vary in different countries. A study conducted in Egypt showed that in the parts of the country largely inhabited by uneducated people, Islamists gathered more votes. Yet, similar studies in Morocco and in Tunisia showed the opposite result. However, it should be noted that these studies have significant flaws – they are based on electoral district data, not individuals. As a result, drawing conclusions that the Islamists are poor due to the fact that the Islamist parties gathered more votes in poorer regions of the country might be an over generalisation.

The World Values Survey, which classifies the respondents according to their socioeconomic background, at the same time asking them about their electoral preferences, therefore might provide more accurate data. This study shows that in some of the Arab countries there is no significant difference in the educational level of Islamist party voters and non-Islamist party voters, while in some other countries the first group was found to be more educated. What is visible in all the countries included in this survey is the high level of interest in politics among the Islamist parties’ voters in comparison to other party voters and non-voters. This data contradicts the concept that Islamist voters are uneducated and poorer. However, in some of the countries, such as Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan, where Islamist parties lead large charity organizations, clientelist votes can be observed. Yet, the data gathered by the Arab Barometer shows that what encourages voters to vote for Islamist parties is more often their opinions than material benefits – voters of the Islamist parties simply have more conservative views, aligning with the party programme. As we can see in the data provided by the Arab Barometer, apart from their conservative views, they tend to be frustrated by corruption and dissatisfied with the rule of the secular regimes. that is more, the example of the Ennahda party in Tunisia suggests that the Islamist voters, can hold their politicians accountable if they do not fulfil their electoral promises. Three years after the electoral victory in the first elections held after the Arab Spring, the party was defeated, losing a third of its votes. Therefore, in this example we can see that “Islamist voters – at least in Tunisia – do not blindly support Islamist parties, and do expect concrete economic and social changes.


It must be said that Islamist parties vary around the region. The Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco; the Justice and Construction Party in Libya; the Al-Nahda in Tunisia; the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Egypt, and Syria; Hamas in Palestine are just some examples of such parties across the Arab world. Moreover, the Arab Spring resulted in the emergence of informal” Islamists that are not affiliated with any party or other political group. “‘Informal’ Islamists rely heavily on social networks, kinship, friendship links and modern technology to disseminate their ideology and widen their influence. They have followers from different social strata; urban and rural, poor and rich, schools and universities, etc. For them, street vendors are as important as university professors.”

Among the Islamist movements and political parties there are ultra-conservative and reformists, moderates, and extremists, such as political Salafis, ex-jihadists, independent Islamists, Sufis and others. In Egypt alone, there have been around 15 Islamist parties since 2011. Some of the jihadi Islamists use violence to achieve political goals, others do not resort to violence. Moreover, the same party may change its ideology and behaviour in different circumstances. For example, opposition parties behave differently than the parties in power, furthermore parties that seek to gain power in elections behave differently than parties that do not have this possibility. In some cases, participation in elections resulted in a meaningful change in ideology and behaviour.

Instead of promising salvation, Islamists in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, were promising their voters that they would fight corruption and achieve economic growth. Instead of using its slogan ‘Islam is the solution’, during the Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood was pledging to voters that they would fight against injustice, poverty, and corruption. The commitment to fight against corruption was also present in the PJD electoral campaign in Morocco and Tunisian Ennahda. In addition to this Ennahda also expressed support for women’s rights, gender equality, and freedom for women to choose whether to wear the veil or not. In 2016, Ennahda announced that they no longer identify with political Islam, but rather as Muslim Democrats. Yet at the same time, there are also Salafist movements in Tunisia that would like to impose wearing a veil on Tunisian universities. Furthermore, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood objects to the possibility for a woman or Christian to hold the office of president and most Salafis opt for imposing gender segregation, as well as restrictions such as the prohibition of alcohol.

THE MODERATION OF ISLAMIST PARTIES the presence of Islamic parties on the political landscape can have a de-democratising effect, the important question is what can lead to their moderation. Some studies show that the key factor is the inclusion of Islamists within the political system. One theory suggests that Islamist parties become more moderate due to electoral incentives, i.e., in order to gain more votes. Another suggests that they moderate themselves to avoid state repression. However, some research shows that the exclusion of Islamist parties can have the opposite result, namely it can lead to their further radicalisation (‘exclusion-radicalisation hypothesis’).

Those who believe that Islamist parties should be excluded to preserve democracy, seem to forget that in many Arab and Muslim-majority countries they had already been excluded and it certainly did not make the Islamist ideology disappear. Moreover, it could even have the contrary effect – the secular oppression may result in the further radicalisation of Islamist parties as well as their supporters. The Arab Spring was preceded by the decades of repressions of Islamists by secular regimes. Some of the Arab dictators have undertaken violent measures to fight against the Islamist movements. During Hafiz Al-Asad’s rule, members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria have been imprisoned and their uprising in Hama in 1982 was violently suppressed. The siege of Hama resulted in thousands of casualties, yet the Muslim Brotherhood still exists in Syria today.

Years of repression created the reality where Islamists are considered as the victims of these regimes, while including them in the political scene results in a notable change instance, as this requires that Islamist politicians must play another role and face social and political challenges, such as unemployment and poverty. They must therefore adapt their political views as well as their actions to the new reality. It also means that they will be held accountable for how they are – or are not – coping with these issues. According to the inclusion-moderation hypothesis, the Islamists often become more moderate when they participate in the democratic system and are included in elections. In the case of Islamist parties, the inclusion-moderation hypothesis can be 3 rephrased “as identifying the conditions under which parties move from the ‘fundamentalist’ to the ‘denominational’ category.

Yet, as the author of “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Yemen and Jordan” noticed, the inclusion of Islamist parties does not necessarily lead to moderation. Her studies on the Islamic Action Front in Jordan and the Islah party in Yemen show, that although the former moderated, the same cannot be concluded for the latter. It must also be considered that most of the Arab regimes are undemocratic, and therefore this dynamic will differ from that of democratic states.

Another interesting study shows that Islamist parties can moderate as a result of migration to secular democracies. This theory is shown in the example of Tunisian Ennahda, which was persecuted during the rule of Ben Ali. Some of its members were imprisoned or went underground in Tunisia (“Ennahda fi al-dakhil”), while others were in exile in Western capitals (“Ennahda fi al-kharij”). After 2011 the party reunited in Tunisia and came to power, but this division into two wings is visible in the analysis of their voting. While drafting a new constitution, around 90% of the Ennahda members who emigrated to Western capitals were voting in a much more secular way on issues such as religious freedom, banning the practice of takfir (incitement to religious violence), and imposing the Qur’an and Sunnah as the basis of legislation. In contrast among those who stayed only in Tunisia, 60-70% were voting similarly. The conservative wing of the party, represented by the politicians such as Habib Ellouze and Sadok Chourou, who spent two decades in Tunisian prison tried to impose an amendment to make the Quran and Sunna the basis of legislation. Some researchers suggest that “a U-shaped path can be assumed: a certain level of state repression generates moderation by making a ‘radical’ party fear prohibition, non-admission to elections or other sanctions. However, beyond a certain level of repression, this approach can have the opposite effect and encourage radicalism.”


Considering national sovereignty as a core principle of democracy it would be hard to justify a total exclusion of Islamist parties from the political scene. Therefore, in my opinion, the inclusion of the Islamist parties is necessary, as their supporters make up an important part of Arab societies. It is also important to note that the internationally praised – at least until recently – Tunisian transition to democracy would not have been the same had it not been for the participation of Ennahda. Perhaps a more accurate policy would be to define the conditions of inclusion rather than the total prohibition of all Islamist parties, it seems much more accurate to exclude the parties that resort to violence.

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