POMED Notes: “The Resistible Rise of the Islamists?”
The Woodrow Wilson Center held an event titled “The Resistible Rise of the Islamists?” on February 27th featuring Marina Ottaway, Senior Scholar at the Wilson Center, and Les Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa at the National Democratic Institute. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, moderated. The event coincided with the release of Ottaway’s paper “The Resistible Rise of Islamist Parties.”
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for the PDF.
Marina Ottaway spoke first and reviewed the Islamist positions in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. She said that she did not like the chances for democracy in Morocco because its ruler still considers himself an executive king. Though he has transferred more power to the prime minister, he is still able to retain whatever power he sees fit. She remarked that the palace is “running circles” around the Islamists and easily controlling them, making it unlikely that they will provide a significant challenge to the regime any time soon. Ottaway noted, however, that the most powerful Islamist group in Morocco, Adl wal Ihsan, has not been politically active recently, though that could change because its founding leader, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, recently died. She added that in Morocco there are actually veteran and well-organized secular political parties that are a significant counter-balance to the Islamists.
Addressing Tunisia, Ottaway noted that although Ennahda received less than 40% of the vote, this put it in a strong position because the opposition was, and remains, completely unorganized despite its many attempts to consolidate. Meanwhile, on the left, the well-established labor unions have not been able to translate their organization and influence into political efficacy.
Ottaway called Egypt the most complicated situation because of the combination of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, which surprised everyone by taking 27% of the vote in the parliamentary elections. She said the secular side is the most hopeless in Egypt out of the three countries. Thought it received 30% of the vote, it was extremely fragmented between different parties. Ottaway asserted that the only reason the National Salvation Front is staying together is because its only stance is to say no to everything, so they do not have to share any power. If it decides to compete in the elections, it will probably fall apart. She commented that the leaders of the participant parties, who all ran for president and did reasonably well in the first round of the elections, refuse to defer to each other. They are learning that organizing a party to run for parliament is a different animal than running for president.
In conclusion, Ottaway argued that the rise of the Islamist parties is resistible because of what the secular parties have not yet done. Even though the Islamists have not fixed any of the existing problems, which continue to fester and cause frustration, the secular side has not developed a coherent message. To the contrary, some of the things they have said so far have been counterproductive, because they are still learning the political game. She said they have failed to take advantage of opportunities to mobilize support, like when strikes were banned, or women are on the verge of being marginalized. Ottaway cited leadership and organization as being the secular parties’ other issues. She said they need to get down to the nuts and bolts of opening local offices, getting the vote out, and ringing doorbells, rather than merely holding press conferences. However, Ottaway surmised, these are problems that can be corrected.
Les Campbell cited Ottaway’s referencing of the inherent danger of resorting merely to street politics as one of the important parts her paper. He suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood may be the most moderate Islamist group the U.S. will get to interact with, and that more extreme Islamists may follow. He said that some of the Brotherhood’s struggles stem from its lack of experience in interacting with Egypt’s other political elites and even the civil service due to its history of being repressed. Campbell said this makes the Brotherhood vulnerable to manipulation by remnants of the old regime, as it does not have its own benchmark. If this manipulation is observed by voters, the Brotherhood could be voted out.
Campbell said there are ample signs in the Middle East and elsewhere that secular parties can succeed. In Yemen, a recent poll found that the Yemeni Socialist Party has surprising strength because it has capitalized on the youth in the streets. In Jordan, a group that describes itself as centrist or moderate Islamists put together a list, ran a decent campaign, and was able to win a surprising number of votes. Campbell then described what the secular Egyptian parties are currently missing: connections, exposure to other ideas, links with parties around the world and training. He argued that there is globalization in politics, and that it is difficult to have a successful party in isolation. He reported that there are many organizations from many different countries that interested in providing training, but that it has proven to be very hard to convince the secular parties to do the hard work that is necessary. Campbell said it is probably partially because of elitism or classism, and that parties remain hesitant to pour resources into work that may be arbitrarily shut down as in the past, but ultimately they are waiting for external actors to come to the rescue and force the government to enter into a dialogue with them.
During the Q&A, Ottaway opined that the Salafis existed all along, and what was new was their politicization, as they had previously wholly eschewed political activity. The Arab Spring convinced them to become involved, and entities that had been communities of believers became political groups. She expressed skepticism over whether the Saudis would really be encouraging the Salafis in Egypt to pursue power. She said the U.S. had not supported the Islamists and would have preferred that secular parties win. Campbell added that the Islamist parties do seem to have plenty of money, but little has been done thus far to examine where it is coming from.