Several days ago, Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University, and I completed the manuscript for a book that will be published soon by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Based on field studies conducted in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen and Kuwait, it explores the limits and repercussions of the participation of Islamist parties and movements in the political process in the Arab world, with a particular focus on their electoral and parliamentary activities and efficacy. In general, the study draws the following conclusions:
Apart from Hamas, no Islamist movement or party has succeeded in obtaining a parliamentary majority. In fact, after the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, even Hamas gave out signs that it had been caught by surprise by its victory and had given little thought to the possible repercussions of this result. It thus appears that although Islamists had regularly participated in elections, they either deliberately avoided fielding themselves broadly or strongly enough to reach power, or they hoped, at best, to be able to participate in a coalition government. Their modest aims have less to do with their ambitions and agendas than with their deep appreciation of two interrelated realities in the prevailing political environment in most Arab countries. The first is that Arab parliaments are in substance and practice non-democratic and ineffective. Most are heavily dominated by the regime's ruling party or, at best, consist of a collection of diffuse political parties and individuals, many of whom are government appointees. In addition, the nominal powers of parliaments to legislate and monitor government are rarely put into practice. The second reality is that while Arab regimes have preferred to politically outmanoeuvre their Islamist adversaries, as against suppressing them entirely, they still regard the Islamists as their most dangerous opponents and the most capable of threatening the stability of ruling regimes. Government security apparatuses tend to be milder towards Islamists the more that Islamist movements and parties avoid displaying their organisational and popular strength.
Yet, as well as they have read the political environment and adjusted their electoral ambitions accordingly, Islamists have made no steady improvement in the political performance of their parties. In elections and parliamentary life they have achieved much less than their leaders and supporters had hoped for. For example, following the 2005 legislative elections, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood formed the largest, most cohesive and best organised opposition bloc in the country's parliamentary history. Yet they scored only a paltry handful of legislative victories in the past five years. In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party has remained excluded from government while the Jordanian Islamic Action Front has been watching its parliamentary strength gradually decline and its internal coherence disintegrate. Hamas has been unable to avail itself of its parliamentary majority for more than a year and a half. In Kuwait, the Islamic Constitutional Movement has suffered a spate of electoral losses while the opposition Yemeni Reform Rally has discovered that opposition under authoritarian rule offers barely a shadow of a say when compared with siding with and supporting the government.
Is this to say that participating in Arab parliaments is a wasted effort? How do Islamist parties and movements evaluate their own experience? Why do they continue to involve themselves in electoral politics and parliamentary activity? It is worth noting the explanations, justifications and motives that Arab Islamists cite in answer to such questions.
Essentially they argue that taking part in electoral campaigns offers them an opportunity to communicate with a broader public and spread their religious and socio-political reformist messages, as well as to expand their potential electoral base. Those of them who do succeed in winning parliamentary seats, or municipal or local government posts, enjoy the immunity accorded to these positions as they engage in intensive public action at home or communicate with government and non-governmental institutions abroad (Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Moroccan Justice and Development Party MPs have excelled in this during the past few years). In addition, membership in parliament and, to a lesser extent, provincial and municipal boards come with greater media coverage, greater freedom to travel, and opportunities to propose bills and to question officials in a manner consistent with Islamist social and political programmes.
Islamists further stress that participating in elections and parliaments helps them demonstrate to public opinion at home and abroad that their movement continues to enjoy considerable popularity and a solid constituency. Whereas other opposition movements can issue statements strongly condemning government policies and practices, few are able to show that their positions carry any weight outside their conference forums and cultural circles. The Islamist movements with a significant parliamentary representation are among these few. In general, setting aside the tactics and instruments that ruling regimes use to ensure their electoral victories, elections reward those forces that are capable of systematic and sustained grassroots action, which makes electoral campaigns a favourite arena for the propagation of Islamist ideas and for political mobilisation.
Islamists often speak of participating in elections and parliaments as though it were more of a moral and social duty than an opportunity. The classical Islamist argument is founded on the premise that current regimes are unable and unwilling to work for the greater public welfare, and to overcome their countries' chronic social and economic crises. Therefore, these societies will inevitably turn to the "Islamist alternative" in the anticipation that its "purer" and unsullied parties will lead them to better solutions. From this premise proceeds the conviction that Islamists engage in the political process altruistically, out of deference to the popular will. And from this follows the claim that were the Islamists to withdraw from public life, this would precipitate widespread despair and encourage submission to existing authoritarian regimes.
Finally, they maintain that participating in elections and parliamentary life offers them a chance to develop and hone new political skills. Over the past decades, Islamists have learned how to organise themselves, acculturate their supporters, support the poor through healthcare and other social services, and to promote Islamic causes worldwide. However, elections require different skills: how to organise campaigns, draw up electoral platforms, promote candidates and platforms, mobilise popular support, monitor the electoral process and validate ballot counting mechanisms. Parliamentary work requires, among other things, in-depth expertise in public affairs issues, the ability to draft legislation, and familiarity with the available tools for monitoring government performance. Also, engaging in the electoral and parliamentary processes encourages Islamists to explore the possibilities of working and coordinating with other political forces, forming alliances, and consensus making. Such skills and expertise can help Islamist movements and parties develop new means and strategies for promoting their religious and reformist agendas.
If, indeed, Islamists are seeking to augment their contact with the greater public, lure potential voters, demonstrate their social influence and acquire new skills by means of participating in electoral and parliamentary processes, what have they accomplished in these domains during the past few decades?
Without a doubt they have expanded their audiences. Islamists are definitely more capable and more adept at communicating, not only with their own supporters but also with secularists, sceptics, the politically apathetic, and even foreign diplomats and researchers. Islamist political parties and movements have also demonstrated their popularity, albeit at an enormous cost. The 2005 elections in Egypt were followed by a wave of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood that has not yet abated. The Moroccan Justice and Development Party remains locked out of any possibility to participate in a ruling coalition while the Jordanian Islamic Action Front is facing Amman's increasing tendency to view it as a security threat. Meanwhile, from within Hamas there have been grievances that the movement has paid too high a price for its 2006 legislative victory. On the other hand, Islamists have succeeded in acquiring new political skills and steadily improving their electoral and parliamentary performance. However, only rarely have they reaped the benefits from these inroads in view of electoral tampering on the part of regimes. In addition, their parliamentary victories are meagre in comparison to the numbers of laws and policies authorised or adopted during their terms of office. Finally, the Islamists have clearly failed to respond to the popular will, as they themselves interpret it, for social and political reform. Indeed, in some countries these causes have actually suffered steady setbacks in tandem with Islamists' participation in electoral and parliamentary politics and in conjunction with escalating tensions between them and ruling regimes.