The success of Islamist parties in countries in transition is causing a lot of angst, both among secularists in the region and observers in the West. The questions raised tend to be stark, demanding absolute answers. Is there such a thing as a moderate Islamist party, or do they all aim at eventually setting up a full-fledged Islamic state? Do they accept the values of democracy, rather than simply the electoral process, as a means of gaining power? Would they surrender power if they ever gained control of the government? Would they uphold personal rights or attempt to mold society after their own values?

There are no absolute answers, as ongoing research on the transitions and a recent encounter in Washington between Carnegie scholars and representatives of Islamist parties from Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco suggest. (Parties from Libya and Jordan were also represented in the meeting, but their stances will not be discussed here—they are not in a position of power, and the problems they confront are still quite different).

These largely moderate Islamist parties seem to be evolving rapidly as they learn to navigate through the difficult politics and the uncertain democratic processes of their countries. They are truly works in progress, and their evolution will likely be affected the way secular parties and to a lesser extent the international community react to them.

Islamist parties appear to be truly national. There does not seem to be an overarching “Islamist International” to which they all belong, and they do not even seem to be in limited contact with each other. At the conference in particular, we felt that we knew more about them than they know about each other.

The Islamist parties that participated in the encounter—the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) in Morocco—have common ideological roots in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. The ideas propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood spread quickly to other countries in the Middle East, and organizations inspired by it arose throughout North Africa and the Levant. Despite the spread of the ideology, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood remained a national organization, deeply involved in domestic proselytizing and charitable activities, and in periodic clashes with successive regimes.

Muslim Brotherhood–inspired organizations in other countries always had a similar domestic focus. It is only among the more radical, violent groups that international networks developed, for example to recruit volunteers for jihad in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Conference discussions showed that this domestic focus is still very evident today. Though Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco—which are now in the government or at least in parliament—face similar policy issues, there is no indication that they are consulting with each other on how to address them, or that they are particularly interested in finding out what other parties are doing. Each party is wrapped up in the domestic problems and the specific political dynamics of its own country.

The issue of sharia illustrates the point. Whether or how the constitution should mention sharia is the hottest ideological issue that Arab countries in transition face. It looms large in the relationship between Islamists and secular parties and is a major cause of anxiety among the secularists. Each of the three parties has different solutions, very much rooted in the politics of its country.

In Morocco, where the new constitution was written by a commission appointed by the king, the PJD did not lobby for the inclusion of sharia in the text. Instead it accepted the definition of Morocco as a Muslim state and Islam as the religion of the state as good enough—though some PJD officials claim that they would have preferred language defining Morocco as a “civil state with an Islamic reference.” They supported freedom for other religions as well. Ennahda also decided to forego any mention of sharia, settling instead for the neutral language of the 1956 constitution that simply states that “Islam is [Tunisia’s] religion.”

In Egypt, however, where the constitution has not yet been written, sharia will certainly be prominently mentioned as a source of legislation. The simple reason is that all major parties and all presidential candidates support the idea explicitly in their platforms.

Islamist parties, with the partial exception of the Moroccan PJD, still show signs of their previous isolation, both within their own countries and internationally. Government repression and the policies of the United States and European countries forced them to stay in their own bubbles. Not all Islamist leaders at this point are familiar and comfortable with the world outside the bubble.

Domestically, Islamist movements and political parties have experienced long periods of repression, with many of their leaders exiled or imprisoned repeatedly or for long periods. For example, in Egypt, Khairat al-Shater, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, was imprisoned for a total of more than twelve years between 1992 and 2011, while FJP vice chairman Essam el-Erian spent the equivalent of eight years in jail between 1981 and 2010. In Tunisia, the current prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, spent a total of sixteen years in jail after 1990, ten of them in solitary confinement. Ennahda Chairman Rached Ghannouchi was imprisoned in 1981 and again in 1987 for a total of four years, spending another twenty-two years in exile.

The exception to this history of repression and isolation is the PJD in Morocco, which was allowed by the king to become an officially registered political party in 1992 and has operated legally and openly since then, gaining exposure to the rest of Moroccan society and the world. But the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was never granted official recognition nor was it allowed to form a political party until after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. While it found ways to participate in elections through deals with other political parties or through independent candidates, it could not function as a normal political organization. In Tunisia, Ennahda, then called the Islamic Tendency Movement, sought recognition as a political party in 1981 but was rejected, and in response to its growing popularity, many of its leaders were exiled or imprisoned. The organization only started functioning normally after the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, becoming a legally registered party in March 2011.

The forced isolation imposed on Islamist parties in the past makes it difficult to interpret whether some of the positions that most upset secularists in these countries and outsiders are truly radical statements, to be taken literally, or the result of naïveté about how certain statements resonate outside the confines of the Islamist community. Examples abound: Prime Minister Jebali, apparently in an attempt to reassure his audience that Tunisia would move toward a bright future, talked about the coming of the sixth caliphate, leading many to question Ennahda’s moderation and its commitment to the Tunisian state. And some officials in both the Muslim Brotherhood and in Ennahda suggested at one point that tourists would have to abide by stricter rules about attire and alcohol consumption, only to beat a hasty retreat after tourist operators set them straight about the realities of the industry.

It is in the interest of the international community as well as of secularists in Arab countries to do everything possible to pierce the bubble that still surrounds part of the Islamist leadership. Islamists need to be integrated as much as possible in all domestic and international fora to understand what is acceptable or not acceptable elsewhere. The point is not to teach Islamists to hide their true opinions, but to help them to confront the choices they face and the reality of functioning as political parties in the real world. They may well choose to challenge dominant ideas deliberately and as a matter of principle, but this process of engagement will at least provide greater clarity about their choices.

Islamist parties are different from each other, but doctrinal differences are not the most important factors setting them apart from each other. Rather, what shapes these parties are the conditions in which they operate: the support they have, the reaction of secular political parties to them, and whether they have government responsibilities.

Ideologically, the three parties are similar. They have rejected explicitly the idea of using force to gain power and are now committed to political participation. A corollary of political participation is the acceptance of pluralism and of the democratic process—though critics contend that such acceptance is purely opportunistic and that Islamists will renege on pluralism and democracy once in power. Another corollary, as pointed out earlier, is that they have accepted the reality of the division of the Muslim world into nation-states and that they have become national parties.

Politically, however, there are differences, particularly concerning the relationship between a given political party and the religious organization that spawned it. In Morocco, the PJD is quite separate from the religious organization Harakat al-Tawhid wal Islah and has been for many years. Indeed, the party is doing its best to be a normal political organization.

Ennahda has distant roots in a religious and cultural movement, Jama’a al-Islamiyya, but by 1981 it was trying to form, unsuccessfully, a political party, the Islamic Tendency Movement, which was later renamed Ennahda. The organization suffered a serious blow after it tried to field candidates as independents in the 1989 election and government repression intensified. Ennahda revived very quickly after Ben Ali’s deposition, still as a political force.

The situation in Egypt is the opposite. The Muslim Brotherhood as a religious movement long predates the Freedom and Justice Party, which was only formed in March 2011 and has not yet acquired an identity separate from the religious organization.

There are even starker differences among Islamist parties concerning their focus on policy issues. Both the PJD and Ennahda are governing their countries, although in coalition with other parties. The PJD is focused on how to translate the principles contained in the new constitution into policies—and how to maintain its political support in doing so. Ennahda is focused on getting the constitution approved and devising an economic policy to address pressing problems of poverty and unemployment. Their concerns are immediate and practical.

By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP have not really begun to focus on policy issues, reflecting the political situation in Egypt, where the fundamental issue of the allocation of power among the military, an Islamist-dominated parliament, and a soon-to-be-elected president is still unresolved.

Islamist parties face mobilized populations in their own countries and need to take the views of the public into consideration. The possibility that Islamist parties will simply cancel elections in the future to perpetuate their position appears unfounded, the result of fear rather than a realistic possibility.

Opponents claim Islamist parties will use the democratic process to win power but never allow elections to take place again—one person, one vote, one time. In reality, Islamist parties in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt assume that they will face the electorate again and that they need to maintain the support of voters, who have become more politically conscious and mobilized with the events of 2011.

Ennahda in Tunisia will face elections in March 2013 because the Constituent Assembly was designed to have a short mandate. The date of those elections has already been set. Under the present circumstances, it is all but unconceivable that elections could be cancelled. Popular reaction would be swift and the party would undermine itself. In fact, Ennahda is careful not to give the impression that it intends to stay on past the original mandate, for example dividing its economic plans into short-term goals for this year—outlined in a supplemental budget request—and a longer-term program describing what it would do if reelected.

In Morocco, elections have taken place regularly for decades, although they have not always been free. Given the well-established tradition and the continuing power of the palace, new elections are a certainty. The PJD is also acutely aware that its performance now will affect the next elections, having experienced once already how easy it is to lose votes. In the 2007 elections, the party received 1 million votes fewer than in 2002 because a large number of voters, disgusted with the incapacity of the parliament to address problems, stayed home or, worse, cast deliberately spoiled protest ballots.

Egypt presents the most complex picture. Islamists so far they have little power despite their large majorities in parliament. Power is in the hands of the military and state institutions, including the judiciary, controlled by members of the old regime. Should the Muslim Brotherhood candidate win the presidential elections, Islamists will still be struggling for power with the military.

But the Brotherhood candidate may not even win the presidential election. Mohammed Morsi appears to lag behind both Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak and later secretary-general of the Arab League, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood when he decided to run for president after the organization declared it would not present a candidate. The Islamist-dominated parliament thus will probably have to share power not only with the military but also with a president who is not part of the organization. Under the circumstances, Egyptian Islamists will need the support they can get from elections to build up their influence. Electoral support is all they have, since they have no control over the military and little presence in state institutions.

In the end, are these Islamist parties moderate?

If we judge them by what they say and above all what they have done so far, rather than by what some fear they might do, the PJD, the FJP, and Ennahda are moderate. This is the case for a number of reasons:

  • They do not advocate violence
  • They recognize the legitimacy of organizations championing different points of view
  • They have all accepted the rights of women, and as a matter of fact, they have done much more to promote women in political posts than secular parties
  • Neither Ennahda nor the PJD has insisted that sharia be declared the basis of legislation, while the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood demands that sharia be declared the source of legislation, as do all secular parties
  • None of them advocates the implementation of huddud, the fixed punishments prescribed by Islamic law that include the amputation of thieves’ limbs and the stoning of adulteresses
  • None of them has advocated the imposition of Islamic dress on women, although they certainly look favorably upon it

Though they have not done anything that suggests a radical social or political program, reasons for concern remain: these organizations are Islamist and thus Islam is their frame of reference; and they are part of societies with a long authoritarian tradition and no established democratic ways. In Egypt, Tunisia, and to some extent Morocco, authoritarian answers to problems are still the default setting—for Islamist and secular parties alike.

There is an inherent tension in all these parties between respect for Islamic principles and traditions and the commitment to democracy. It is the familiar tension between the absolute principles of religion and the pragmatic accommodations of democracy that exists in all countries where religion remains a point of reference in political life, as in the United States or in parts of Europe with strong Christian Democratic parties. The tension may be even greater at the level of the general populace than at the level of the leaders and theorists who have been thinking for years about how to reconcile Islamic principles with those of democracy.

The tension becomes quite evident at times, particularly in Egypt, where there is still resistance in the Brotherhood to the idea that a woman or a Copt could become president. Similarly, the idea that religious authorities should judge whether specific laws are compatible with sharia keeps reemerging.

On some issues, for example concerning the rights of women, culture will also remain an obstacle. Tunisia is the most secular of the three countries, but politics is still dominated by men, with only Ennahda making a major effort to increase women’s representation in political life. And questions remain about the commitment of these Islamist parties to personal rights. A categorical position against any interference in personal rights seems to still be lacking, although Ennahda and the PJD appear to be closer to such a commitment than the FJP.

In the authoritarian tradition, media freedom has always been hampered in these countries by laws that criminalize criticism of the president, the armed forces, and authorities in general. It is all too easy to extrapolate from these traditions to criminalize acts that can be considered insulting to religion. If journalists can be arrested for reporting on the president’s health, as in Egypt, it is difficult to argue that they should be allowed to insult the prophet with immunity.

Similarly, the spectrum of permissible opinions has always been restricted; there has been little respect for pluralism in these countries. There is no reason to believe that Islamist parties will be immune to these established traditions any more than secular parties and politicians are. Egypt just witnessed a tantrum by the head of the presidential election commission, who suspended the work of the commission because the parliament dared discussing a bill that would have allowed for the appeal of the commission’s decision—hardly a crime in a democratic country, but greeted as such by the election commission.

The road to democracy is still very long and rocky in these countries, and not all stones have been placed there by Islamist parties. After all, the ruling elite and secular parties of the Middle East have not been committed to democracy either. The Nasserist, Baathist, nationalist, and monarchist regimes in the region have not been democrats, and the presence of women in secular political parties in the Arab world has not exceeded that in Islamist parties. There is no doubt that without a commitment to pluralism, societies in the Middle East cannot hope for constant renewal, sustainable development, and individual and group rights. That commitment, however, must be expected of everyone equally—whether Islamist or secularist.