Political Islam is not losing its sway across the Muslim world. The politics of certain parties (Islam-inspired) is. In other words, while Islamic parties certainly have faced criticism in Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia in the past few months, they failed to govern properly because they are political entities rather than religious groups.
The plethora of news reports declaring the "failure," the "end" or the "fall" of political Islam in Egypt and the Middle East thus requires a fresh look at past events in the region. Up until today, political Islam, which refers to the irruption of religion as a political system into politics, is widely accepted by most Muslims. In fact, Islam fuses religion and politics ("din wa dawla" in Arabic or "religion and state").
About a month before the latest wave of demonstrations that ousted Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, 74% of Egyptians said they still wanted Islamic teaching to shape politics, and supported making Shari'a (Islamic law) the official law of their country. These are the findings of a Pew Research Institute survey1 titled "The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society," published on April 30, 2013.
Three-fourths of Egyptian survey respondents polled during Morsi's mandate also said they wanted religious leaders to influence politics (28% said they wanted them to have a "large" influence, and 47% said they wanted them to have "some" influence). Finally, 55% of Egyptian respondents favored Islamic parties over secular ones.
A Loss of Political Credibility
The reality is that Morsi was toppled by the military on July 3 because of his poor performance during his first year in office - rather than because he is an Islamist. The majority of Egyptian society has hitherto been very conservative and pious, which is why most Egyptian women protesting against Morsi are veiled practicing Muslims.
In one year, the now-ousted president had granted himself far-reaching powers, ignored public discontent and failed to secure the country and fix the shattered economy. He could probably have stayed in power if he had had a solid political and economic program.
Similarly, during the anti-government protests sweeping Morocco in late 2012, people from all walks of life gathered to ask for more democratic reforms in the kingdom. At no point, however, did they cast doubt on the king's status as the "commander of the faithful" or religious leader.
To go further, Tunisian, Egyptian and Moroccan constituents did not opt for an Islamization of their societies and political arenas - no matter how religious they were. They voted for Islamic parties because these were the only viable political alternatives against secular and corrupted parties. Egyptians, for example, picked Islamism after the failure of monarchism, socialism (or Nasserism) and capitalism.
These religious parties, whether it is the ruling Ennahda in Tunisia or the Justice and Development party in Morocco, have utilized Islam for political purposes. They based their appeal on their Islamic credentials and championed faith, morality and justice - of which previous autocratic governments were devoid - to gain the votes of the disillusioned constituencies.
A Domino Effect?
The fact that Islamists have not become personae non grata following Morsi's downfall notwithstanding, Egypt's current deadlock is likely to foster a climate for reform in the Muslim world.
In Tunisia, Morsi's ouster has pressured the Ennahda party to govern better, ease political tensions (after the assassinations of opposition members) and compromise more to finalize the constitution.
The grassroots Tamarod movement (meaning "rebellion" in Arabic), which takes its cue from Egypt's anti-government movement, supposedly gathered about 200,000 signatures in a petition calling for the dissolution of Tunisia's interim parliament and the holding of early elections. This number remains low compared to the 22 million signatures collected by its Egyptian namesake. If this opposition campaign were to end the country's transitional period and pave the way for a stable government, a military intervention is unlikely.
In contrast to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which ruled alone, the Ennahda party is part of a coalition government comprising conservative Salafist as well as secular parties. It is thus more difficult for Rachid Ghannouchi, the party leader, to promote an ideological program or rule according to the motto "l'Etat, c'est moi." For instance, the Ennahda party has not stated in the constitution that Islam is the country's religion, instead reverencing a civil state with democratic institutions. Besides, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood had a four-year mandate, whereas Tunisia's government announced it would hold elections for a new legislative body in December.
Across the Mediterranean Sea, Jordan has also resisted shockwaves from Morsi's ousting. Egypt's crisis may prompt a debate over how the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Islamic Action Front, can be integrated into the political game of the Hashemite Kingdom. Although Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood traces its ideological origins back to Egypt's branch, it may cast doubt on a conservative agenda as the Egyptian experience suggests the importance of moderation and gradual change. In fact, Jordan's Islamists have called for constitutional and political reforms rather than for toppling the regime.
In any case, the divided Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is quite marginalized since they have boycotted previous parliamentary elections. They also decided to abstain from participating in local elections due to take place at the end of August. Realistically speaking, the king and other decision-makers are likely to maintain the status quo.
When Can It Work?
If Islamic parties in North Africa have lost the trust of some of their voters, that does not necessarily sound the death knell of political Islam. The latter can be effective if it offers a coherent political and economic program.
Although Turkey, led by an Islamist party since November 2002, is the oft-cited example to illustrate the success of political Islam, recent antigovernment protests across the country have shed light on the conditions for political Islam to work. In June 2013, the Turkish people demonstrated, among other things, against the government's creeping encroachment on secularism and on the civil and political liberties of its citizens.
As Turkey's appetite for EU membership has weakened, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made controversial political moves, including the creation of single-sex beaches, warnings against public displays of affection and the prohibition of the sales of alcohol after 10 p.m. He has also exhorted Turkish women to have at least three children, thereby imposing a traditional familial model.
Yet, the socially conservative Erdogan, unlike Morsi, is still in power mainly because Turkey has a GDP that is more than three times that of Egypt. In the past 10 years, the Turkish economy has become the world's 17th largest, and the country has managed to repay its $23.5 billion debt to the IMF in a time of global economic meltdown.
Speaking of the Devil
It is therefore critical to understand that Islam remains a major component of the societies and politics of the Muslim world. It cannot be eradicated due to the downfall of one Islamic party only. In fact, any strictly secular regime may face the opposition of the conservative constituency, especially in Egypt, where Morsi's proponents are still defying the army.
To go further, political Islam is today empowered and widely accepted among Muslims - although Islamist groups are increasingly fragmented - compared with 20 years ago, when Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood monopolized it.
In other words, not only has political Islam not failed, today it has more representatives from different streams, namely the ideological Muslim Brotherhood, the ultra-conservative Wahhabis and Salafists, the pragmatic AKP party, the realistic Ennahda party and the militant Hizbullah in Lebanon.