How Islamists Came to Power in the Arab World

Article Summary
Arab Islamist movements have managed to take power in a multitude of different environments. Their success was due to the social and cultural support they enjoyed, weaknesses of their competitors, and a shift in global perceptions of Islamic parties, writes Fayez Sara.

Despite differences in the size and power of Islamist parties and their supporters in the Arab Spring Countries, [Islamists] managed to reach power in three countries: Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. They are now legally in charge of the executive and legislative institutions, and have become the most powerful parties in their respective states. In Tunisia and Egypt, this was the direct result of elections; Islamists won the largest bloc of parliamentary seats, therefore affording them a leadership position in the new authority. Meanwhile Libyan Islamists were given an important role in political life because of their central participation in the revolution. [They might not have guessed] that their support for the revolution would offer them as many political advantages as they now enjoy.

In the countries where the revolutions are still raging - Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain - Islamists have reasserted their presence on various levels in a manner unlike those in in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. This signals that these parties will enjoy a tangible role in the future political arena when the revolutions in their respective countries are complete. However, each party has its own particularities and background.

It is clear that Arab societies are interacting positively with Islamists and their political parties, despite the fact that they were noticeably absent during the onset of the uprisings. The popular, youthful and non-partisan movements [opened up to] all parties and political groups, including the Islamists. This phenomenon was consistent across several Arab Spring countries.

There are several internal reasons why Islamists were able to take on leadership position in the revolutions despite their early absence. Islamist parties have proven the most capable of preserving their organizational structure during the rule of the old regimes. This was due first of all to the cultural and social support they enjoyed in their societies, whose members were all antagonistic to the repression they faced. Second, competitors to the Islamists in the opposition -such as the liberal, national and leftist parties - were weak. These parties were broken by the regime’s oppression and attacks, and they failed to develop a social and cultural consensus [after the regimes had fallen]. They therefore remained [seen as] elitist. It was difficult for them to rapidly develop their organizational and political framework in the short period of time between the onset of the revolution, its completion and elections.

In general, international perceptions of the Islamist phenomenon are in flux - especially with regards to the most popular [Islamist] parties that have emerged from the Arab Spring. [Here, it is possible to point to] the international satisfaction with the Turkish Islamist Justice and Development Party’s policies, as well as the ongoing effort to re-integrate the Taliban into [Pakistan’s] political life. Moreover, the international community has voiced its satisfaction with regards to the ascent to power of Islamist Parties in Tunisia and Egypt, and direct lines of communication have been opened. The Moroccan case - where Islamists formed the latest government - is an example of an Arab policy change concerning Islamist parties.

All of these factors won the Islamists leadership positions in the Arab Spring Countries. They overcame all obstacles to their ascent to power. Violence has historically been a tenet linked with Islamist groups in Arab states, and this linkage persists today. [Acts of] violence have not been limited to parent organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood; it has spread to sub-groups politically and intellectually influenced by the Brotherhood. In the countries were Islamists have been in power, their experience is relatively comparable to that of nationalist groups. Some examples include: Iraq, Syria, Libya, the leftist rule in South Yemen, the very obviously Islamist experience of the Hamas Emirate in Gaza, and Sudan.

Three factors allowed the Islamists [in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya] to overcome the obstacles to leadership. First, these groups enjoy high level of popular maturity based on a tolerant attitude to all the victims of the toppled regime. They have demonstrated the will to create a new open mentality that refuses exclusion or domination. Their maturity allows them to open public life - and especially the political arena- to all groups, including fellow Islamist [competitors]. Second, Islamist groups have conducted a political and organizational review. [This review is meant] not only to fix the stereotypes that surround them, but also to make the necessary changes [within their structures] which will allow them to respond to the demands of their societies concerning the nature of the future state in the Arab Reality. [These societies demand] that this state be based on civil democracy that encompasses justice, equality, and participation. Separation between the historical Islamist group such as the Muslim Brotherhood and their political arms - similar to what is happening in Egypt - is necessary to build such a state.

The third factor is the political environment in the region and the world that has offered a chance to Islamist parties, and is willing to test their intentions. The world is waiting to see if the Islamist of the Arab Spring States will emulate the example of the Turkish Islamists, who seem to have succeeded in their first political, economic, social and cultural tests. The Turkish Islamists work for the political and economic development of their country, and reinforce their democracy through a medley of Islam and secularism. These factors have provided Arab Islamists with better chances of reaching power. However, the question over whether they will adopt a model different to that of Palestine or Sudan remains.

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