Islamist movements participating in politics in the Middle East have reached an important crossroad. Despite some electoral success, they have failed to influence policy and are criticized by their base for abandoning their religious commitments. Islamist movements must convince their supporters that political participation is the best way to affect government in the long term, despite seemingly poor short term gains.

Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy examine the experiences of “participating Islamist movements” in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Yemen. Islamists are torn between their need to compromise on some social and political issues to be effective political players and the risk of alienating their core supporters.

Key Conclusions:

  • Islamist movements are reacting to their failure to influence policy and criticism from their base by either reverting to hard-line stances or engaging in extensive debates that create uncertainty and weaken support.
  • Islamist movements operating without constant threat of repression by the state are more willing to compromise, focus on pragmatic policy issues, and remain committed to democratic processes, while Islamists whose participation is hampered by the state are more focused on ideological issues and marginalize reformers within the movement.  
  • The presence of Islamist movements with an armed wing affects the balance of power within a state and sometimes hinders the process of moderation, but excluding armed Islamists from the political process is unrealistic given their tremendous popular support.

The authors conclude:

“While participation is not invariably a process of further democratization and moderation, it is also clear that non-participation—either enforced by governments or chosen by the leadership of Islamist parties and movements—is a guarantee that a process of moderation will not take place. This is a sobering thought for those governments and their international backers that would like to set the bar for participation by Islamists extremely high. The choice is not between allowing the somewhat risky participation by Islamists in politics and their disappearance from the political scene. It is between allowing their participation despite the existence of gray zones with the possibility that a moderating process will unfold, and excluding them from the legal political process—thus ensuring the growing influence of hard-liners inside those movements and the continued existence of gray zones."