August 16, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Political Islam and the Arab Spring: Charting a New Ideological Route

As of mid-August 2012, from Morocco to Turkey, political Islam is on the rise. Democratic elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt have brought Islamist parties into government. For decades, such a scenario had been unthinkable as authoritarian regimes across the wider Middle East barred Islamist parties' political participation. This reality has dramatically changed as the Arab Spring opened up the political process and Islamist parties — which campaigned to end corruption and promote justice — proved an attractive ticket. Amid simmering economic and social discontent across the region, political Islam is likely to prove similarly successful in neighboring countries.

For many Western governments, this trend is problematic. Their experience with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hamas in Palestine, and the civil war in Algeria make them inherently suspicious of Islamic parties. The West's longstanding support to autocratic governments, most notably in Libya and Egypt, was in part to hedge against the spread of Islamism. History would suggest that parties pursuing Islamism might also promote anti-Western policies, end elections, and forgo issues such as human rights and gender equality.

As with other political and cultural developments across the region, however, political Islam is evolving. Amid the risk of military confrontation between Israel and Iran, the growing array of terrorist groups and the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, Western governments might find greater geopolitical returns by aiming to accept these changes, build relations and seek to guide a more peaceful future.


Political Islam: Meanings and Misconceptions

Political Islam is an ideology and, while fiercely debated, is based on the belief that Islamic texts — the Quran and Hadiths — provide guidance for political participation. This, however, is different from Islam as a faith. Political movements — which took inspiration from Hasan al-Banna's Muslim Brotherhood — believe that Islamism offers a more prosperous future for Muslims, and a return to their historical pre-eminence.

Contrary to popular conceptions, Islamism comes in a range of different orientations. On the conservative end of the spectrum are the Wahhabis and Salafists, who rely on a literal interpretation of Islamic texts to guide a better future. At the liberal end are those who believe Islam needs to be reinterpreted — or viewed allegorically — as a guide for addressing the problems of today; these movements, including the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, often believe that democracy and "Western values" are reconcilable with Islamism. Between the two poles, a myriad different Islamist groups pursue a mixture of policies. Al-Qaeda, for example, pursues a somewhat different — and widely unpopular — interpretation, based on a selected literal interpretation of certain passages, and calls for offensive jihadism to establish an Islamic state.

Modern Islamist parties and movements are flexible and increasingly adaptable — moving across the spectrum — to address the current political environment. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group, is a prime example of this ideological flexibility. It was formed as a party to spread Ayatollah's Khomeini's Islamic revolution in the early 1980s, but has gradually evolved. It now participates in Lebanese national elections, and its stated goal is to build support across all denominations in Lebanon. In its most recent 2009 manifesto the party even distanced itself from its Islamic reference points.


Political Islam: A Post Arab Spring Review

Similar to its role in the Arab Spring, Tunisia has set the standard for an evolving form of political Islam. The liberal Islamist party, Ennahda, models itself on Turkey's liberal AKP and leads a coalition of groups. It has already shown substantial political flexibility, announcing that new elections will occur next spring. The government has encouraged foreign investment, and has also taken steps to build partnerships with Western governments. Although not without its own Islamic idiosyncrasies, it has pursued a course conducive to foreign investment and rejected Sharia Law. In Morocco, the Party for Justice and Development (PJD), which won parliamentary elections in November, has adopted a similarly liberal path and has established itself as a democratic-leaning Islamist party.

To the east, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology continues to unfold. The Brotherhood adeptly formed a new political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), presumably to show it was in-line with the rapidly developing political and security conditions. Although its leadership is new, the FJP says it intends to build a "constitutional democracy" that will protect civil society and other institutions. It has sought to portray itself as party that aims to improve economic and social policies, and advocates a 'liberal market economy'.


A Hopeful Path But Obstacles Remain

Early indications appear to show that the Arab Spring has encouraged Islamist parties to adopt liberal principles. The biggest loser is al-Qaeda's extremist Salafist Jihadi ideology, which has received little new support and remains on the margin within post-Arab Spring states. The liberalization of the Arab Spring seems likely to continue. After all, one lesson for the new governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Libya is that if they do not succeed in achieving their promises of a better future, they are unlikely to remain in power. Meanwhile, tourism and Western investment offer the simplest fix to the economic problems. To help achieve this, governments are likely to improve human rights and gender equality.

The growth of political Islam, however, is not without risks. As ruling Islamist parties seek a liberal and more open society, this is likely to exacerbate tension. The military remains powerful in the region (even in Egypt despite President Mohamed Morsi's removal of several senior generals) and is unwilling to give up control over its command and control structure. Without a unified military and government, history suggests that political disputes and unrest are likely. Over the weekend, President Morsi also unilaterally changed the constitution as he sought to ensure he was in control of the military. While this action is a popular move with Egyptians, it is no doubt one with likely political and security ramifications.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, there is growing evidence of Salafist-led violence. Groups have targeted stores selling alcohol, and organized large demonstrations to protest over secularization. As the post revolution governments seek to strike a balance between Islamic principles and Western concepts such as globalization and capitalism, it is plausible that this pattern will expand in Tunisia, and spread into Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda — while broadly supportive of the Arab Spring — has criticized the new governments' liberal trajectory. Although al-Qaeda's ideology has not gained support from the Arab Spring, it offshoots have benefitted from territory and weapons, and attacks against government and ""secular" targets are plausible.

The rise of political Islam may also shift the balance of power across the Middle East. Islamist parties have encouraged further Western investment, but relations with Israel are less cordial. Although the long-standing peace treaty between Israel and Egypt remains in place, relations between the two countries are deteriorating. As one example of this, last week, the Muslim Brotherhood blamed Mossad for the armed attack in the Sinai Peninsula that killed 16 policemen. Meanwhile, Egypt's president held talks with Iran's executive vice president, which has led to media speculation that Islamists may revert to their historical anti-Israeli position, and seek to build a stronger relationship with Iran.



Also available: TSG Specialized Reports: The Soufan Group's world-class network of intelligence analysts produces specialized geopolitical and risk assessment products tailored to the unique needs of our clients in the public and private sectors. We welcome the opportunity to discuss your requirements and explore how our intelligence services can assist you in achieving your strategic objectives. For more information, please contact us at:

 Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 9.32.42 AM