This is the third in a three-part commentary reflecting on the political realities the author observed while in the region. Read further analysis of the situation in Jordan and Palestine in the wake of the unrest in the region.

Regional Islamist movements are struck by suddenly open avenues for political activity following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali—but they are dithering (or, as they would prefer to see it, being patient and deliberate) over how to respond.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw political opportunities open throughout the Arab world for Islamist movements. While those opportunities were always sharply—and sometimes cruelly—limited, they were real and presented themselves most enticingly in parliamentary elections. Those elections may have been cooked and Islamists accepted that they could run only on the condition that they lose. Of course, one movement, Hamas, did win, but the resulting situation—the United States and European Union cut financial support and treated the new government as a pariah, finally setting off a civil war between Fatah and Hamas—led not only regimes but also Islamists to be far more cautious in elections.

But in the latter part of the past decade, many Islamist movements felt they hit an iron ceiling. They could make impressive showings but only by the low standards set for opposition electoral performance in an authoritarian setting. Furthermore, the seats won were trophies of limited value because they were far short of a majority and parliaments on the whole were anemic and easily dominated.

Their greater investments in the broader political arena had real benefits: they cultivated new skills, reached new parts of the public, developed broad agendas, and interacted with international actors. But they also provoked strong responses from regimes: the Egyptian leadership in particular turned to a variety of tools: petty harassment, not-so-petty large-scale arrests, and even military courts to try members. Gentler Jordan refused meaningful electoral reform, seized control of the main Islamist nongovernmental organization, cut off most contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, and turned to crude methods (such as busing soldiers to vote where most convenient) in local and parliamentary elections to cut the movement down to size. Again, Hamas was the exception that proved the rule: when Islamists finally won an election outright, they felt deprived of their victory by a coalition of domestic and international adversaries.

The result was a mild Islamist turn away from politics. Leaders most skilled at playing electoral politics, most experienced at dealing with non-Islamist political forces, and most inclined to use broadly political rather than specifically religious rhetoric found their skills less needed. The movements turned gently to more religious, less conciliatory, or more inward-looking figures.

Today, however, things look dramatically different. Unexpectedly, politics appears a fruitful field. First, Ben Ali fell; he had led a Tunisian regime that developed a strange vocabulary of “tolerance” to describe its decimation of political forces it deemed unacceptable and turned much of his fury against Islamists.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Then Mubarak—who proved capable of being as harsh, if far less consistently so—fell in Egypt. Uneven signals from most U.S. policy makers, in particular, indicated significant discomfort but not a severe allergy to the idea that the Brotherhood might play a role in post-revolutionary Egypt.1 The movement still provokes concerns but no longer seems like a darkly threatening force—and it has learned how to appear less threatening still. It managed, for instance, to turn its hesitant and halting support for the Egyptian revolution—and even its agreement to come when summoned by Vice President Omar Suleiman days before Mubarak’s resignation—into reassuring signals to domestic and international audiences anxious that the Brotherhood would leap in to lead any opposition initiative.

If the political field is open in ways unimaginable even a month ago, how should Islamists make use of the new opportunities? A slow and plodding organization given to caution and deliberation, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has reacted not by trying to reinvent itself but by falling back on past decisions and patterns of behavior. The Brotherhood tried to assert control over its message by making clear that only specific leaders could speak for the movement as a whole and quickly thrust forward three leaders who were among its most seasoned, politically skilled, and articulate (`Isam al-`Aryan, Sa`d al-Katatni, and Muhammad Mursi). But some of the voices more attractive to outsiders (most notably `Abd al-Min`am Abu al-Futuh) seemed to speak more for themselves and less for the movement as a whole; their marginalization robbed the movement of its most reassuring elements.

The Brotherhood promised not to run a candidate in the first presidential election (though it suggested it might openly support a candidate from outside the movement) and some leaders even suggested that the Brotherhood would continue its policy of not seeking a parliamentary majority. It reaffirmed its decision to form a political party in principle and even chose a name (Freedom and Justice), but is taking far more time to decide how such a party will be organized and has suggested that when it is formed, it might not have full autonomy from the main movement. On Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, the movement made clear its profound disapproval but experimented with a variety of formulas that were far short of airtight to hint at possibilities for grudging acceptance.

This cautious and reassuring—if often ambiguous—set of approaches seemed to pay off. Both opposition movements and the ruling junta treated the Brotherhood with respect and showed appreciation for the movement’s restraint. Brotherhood leaders turned up in official media and a former parliamentarian even was appointed to the small committee formed by the junta to suggest revisions to Egypt’s constitution.

But if the movement plunges more fully back into politics (and how could it resist?), ambiguity and soothing signals will not be enough to stave off hard decisions indefinitely. The long-shelved party platform that caused the movement some headaches and divisive debates four years ago will have to be dusted off, updated, and the debates revived and resolved.2 A liberalized party system will present many choices (and challenges): how to form a party, how much autonomy to give it, and how and when to cooperate with other parties. Questions that have received vague answers in the past—most notably, how to translate the legal heritage of Islamic sharia into a contemporary legislative context—may be posed again and again, and having a significant share of an effective parliament may mean that they will finally have to be answered in detail.

It is no surprise that the Brotherhood has not rushed to resolve all these questions. Like diplomats confronted with an unexpected crisis or generals well prepared to fight the last war, the movement’s first response is simply to fall back on past formulas while using the time gained to study carefully what opportunities are likely to emerge. The Brotherhood—a large, diverse, and multifaceted organization with a collective leadership of cautious individuals at the top—commits itself very slowly. There may be many tantalizing possibilities (alliances to forge; constituencies to mobilize; issues to seize; official positions to assume) that quickly emerge, but the movement is not in any hurry to choose any one of them if it means abandoning others.

And indeed, a plodding reaction may make sense. It is true, as is often said, that the Brotherhood is the most organized opposition group in the Egyptian political spectrum—but only if one is speaking of the pre-January 25 Egypt. Since then, two things have changed that could make for a very different picture.

First, while the Brotherhood’s organizational abilities are impressive, so are those of the various opposition groups that managed quite literally to mobilize millions of people in the last few weeks. We do not know (indeed, the leaders themselves probably do not know) how many of these groups will decide to construct political parties. But if many do—for instance, if a Youth Party or a Labor Party forms around some of the opposition groups—and work to transfer their revolutionary credentials and their organizational abilities into the electoral realm, then the party scene in Egypt will be different than at any time in the past.

Second, the Brotherhood ran very effectively in elections where the overwhelming majority of people simply did not vote because the elections did not matter. How it would fare in a far more politicized environment is an open question, but its ability to turn out dedicated constituents in the past is no indication of its electoral prowess in the future.3 

It must also be noted that we do not yet know what the rules of the electoral game will be. The junta has suggested a sequence of elections—first a referendum on constitutional amendments, then parliamentary elections, then presidential elections—but its control over events is shaky. And while the constitutional drafting committee is promising to open up the electoral process and return to judicial monitoring, that will require a host of legal and institutional changes that have yet to be specified.

The Brotherhood’s current tactic of positioning itself firmly in the opposition camp while issuing general reassuring signals makes sense. Rather than seize the moment, the movement seems to be patiently waiting to see which opportunities seem most attractive.

And that is the same with other Islamist movements in the region.

Tunisia’s Islamists are able to reemerge for the first time in over two decades; they are hardly in a position to do anything other than slowly rebuild.

The Jordanian Brotherhood

In Jordan, a similar combination of optimism and patience has won the day—combined with a new feistiness. Reeling from electoral marginalization in 2007, a series of official countermeasures, and a cold shoulder from top officials who had previously treated the Brotherhood as a legitimate political player, the Jordanian Brotherhood has also been riven with deep internal divisions.

In the second half of 2010, it managed to recover some of its political voice, agreeing to boycott the country’s parliamentary elections because of the regime’s refusal to provide for real electoral reform and fair electoral administration; it followed this unifying step with a party conference at which various wings of the party hammered out some of their differences and agreed on a more pugnacious line. Beginning in December with an extremely strident verbal attack on those fighting with the Americans in Afghanistan (an implicit criticism of its government’s policy), the movement then began to emphasize increasingly its proposal to move toward a constitutional monarchy—effectively a call to limit sharply the powers of the monarchy.

Oddly, it was some of the more vociferous voices of the past who held back from supporting this last move, worried that it was excessively confrontational. But the rising internal sense of political crisis within Jordan helped lessen divisions within the movement. The rising proportion of Palestinians as opposed to East Bankers within the Islamist rank and file, the close identification of some members with Hamas, and the tendency of some people to see (and wish to align the movement with) a regional “resistance” camp had helped aggravate internal disputes; now that domestic politics was first on everyone’s mind, those disputes lost some of their sharpness.

So the Jordanian Brotherhood was just settling comfortably into a more sharply oppositional role when the Egyptian revolution gave it a strong sense that regional trends were moving suddenly in its direction. Invited for a meeting with the king for the first time since shortly after he took the throne, a group of Brotherhood leaders report that they spoke politely and reassured him that they did not wish to abolish the monarchy but did not back off the constitutional monarchy idea. And when offered cabinet positions by a new prime minister desperately seeking to show he would be doing things differently, the movement did not hesitate to turn him down. Leaders do not reject the idea of entering the cabinet in principle, but they seem to feel that a weak regime will offer better terms later on.

Palestine’s Hamas

Hamas also is in a stronger position as a result of the Egyptian revolution. Movement leaders were close to silent as Mubarak tottered, mindful that the Egyptian regime tended to make them a scapegoat for its difficulties and cognizant that their main interlocutor (and nemesis) in the Egyptian regime, Omar Suleiman, could just as easily have wound up with a promotion as with a forced retirement. But when Mubarak’s fall became clear and Suleiman disappeared, Hamas leaders revealed the preferences that everyone knew they had: to support regime change in Egypt. Whatever new regime emerges, the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of Gaza is unlikely to remain intact.

Questioned about their medium-term vision over the past few years—about how the movement planned to end its isolation in Gaza—leaders tended to respond less with detailed plans and more with optimistic hope. The balance of power in the region was shifting, they would say, and Hamas was not so much trapped as it was waiting. Their predicament is not yet resolved—the movement still is largely in hibernation in the West Bank and remains in partial isolation internationally; its path of “resistance” is still honored largely at the rhetorical level. But the precarious state of the West Bank Palestinian Authority, combined with the possibility of change in Egypt, vindicates those who expected history to move in their direction.

The writer has just returned from a trip to Jordan and Palestine. This is the third in a three-part commentary reflecting on the political realities he observed while in the region. Read Nathan J. Brown's analysis of the situation in Jordan and Palestine in the wake of the unrest in the region.


1 In this regard, it should be noted that the Brotherhood’s approach of opening itself to Western researchers and diplomats as well as its uneven and extremely incomplete move toward greater openness seems to have paid off handsomely. The organization still deserves its reputation for being at times closed, secretive, and inward-looking—but these traits are far less marked than they were in previous years. The result is that the Brotherhood is both a better-known entity and one more skilled at talking to various audiences.

It should be noted here, however, that contacts with officials remained far more limited than was often seen to be the case. Officially, the U.S. position was that it would not directly engage the Brotherhood as an organization but it would deal with elected parliamentarians. When the leader of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, Sa`d al-Katatni, joined the Guidance Bureau (the highest body in the organization), the distinction seemed moot. Nevertheless, in several conversations with Muslim Brotherhood leaders and with U.S. Embassy officials, I was repeatedly told that contacts were sporadic at best. A recent Wikileaks cable suggests that both sides were telling the truth.

2 I analyzed the debate about the platform with my colleague Amr Hamzawy in “The Draft Party Platform of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Foray Into Political Integration or Retreat Into Old Positions?” Carnegie Paper Number 89, January 2008.

3 I rely heavily here on Tarek Masoud’s 2008 Yale doctoral dissertation, Why Islam Wins: Electoral Ecologies and Economies of Political Islam in Contemporary Egypt.