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A new generation of political Islamists steps forward

By Olivier Roy,

Olivier Roy is a professor at the European University Institute in Florence and the author of “Holy Ignorance.”

Everywhere, the Muslim Brotherhood is benefiting from a democratization it did not trigger. There is a political vacuum because the liberal vanguard that initiated the Arab Spring did not try, and did not want, to take power. This was a revolution without revolutionaries. Yet the Muslim Brothers are the only organized political force. They are rooted in society, and decades of opposition against authoritarian regimes gave them experience, legitimacy and respect. Their conservative agenda fits a conservative society, which may welcome democracy but did not turn liberal.

Under these circumstances, the ghost of a totalitarian Islamic state is raised, with the specter of imposing sharia and closing the short democratic parenthesis. But such an outcome is unlikely.

The Islamists have, in fact, changed: They are more middle-class “bourgeois,” and they benefited from the liberalization of local economies during the last decades of the 20th century, especially in countries with no oil rent. The Islamists have also drawn lessons from the failure of ideological regimes and from the success of Turkey’s AKP party. They are no longer advocating jihad and understand geostrategic constraints, such as the need to maintain peace, even a cold one, with Israel. Realism is the starting point of political wisdom.

The Islamists have been elected with a clear agenda: stability, good governance and a better economy. If they have been able to reach a larger constituency than the hard-core supporters of sharia, it is precisely because they can combine such a reformist agenda while talking about religion, values, identity and tradition. The Nahda party won the majority of the votes cast at the Tunisian consulate of San Francisco, although Tunisian expatriates in Silicon Valley are not known for their Islamic fundamentalism.

This mix of technocratic modernism and conservative values is their brand, and to turn their back on multipartism and legalism would alienate a large portion of their constituency, at a time when they have no means to confiscate power. They have neither military forces nor oil wealth to bypass the people: They have to negotiate and deliver. Their electorate wants stability and peace, not revolution.

They are stepping into a new political landscape: a democracy, although a fledgling and fragile one. The only way to maintain their legitimacy is through elections. Even if their pristine political culture is not democratic, they are formatted by the democratic landscape, much as the Roman Catholic Church ended up accepting democratic institutions. But it will take time.

Another important change, if we refer to the “revolutionary” period of the 1970s and 1980s, is that the Muslim Brothers do not monopolize Islam in the public sphere. In fact, the religious revival that has engulfed Arab societies led to a diversification and an individualization of the religious field. Religious state institutions such as Al Azhar, so recently discredited, are regaining autonomy after so recently being discredited. Al Azhar’s dean, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, openly spoke in favor of democracy and of separating religious institutions from the state. A new phenomenon is the decision of the Salafis, an ultraconservative Sunni sect, to establish political parties. On the one hand they will push for a more Islamic agenda, trying to outbid the Muslim Brothers on Islam, but this will force the Brotherhood to clarify its own position and to find a way to distance itself from the call for sharia.

To do that, the Muslim Brothers have to turn purely Islamic norms into more universal conservative values — such as limiting the sale and consumption of alcohol in a way that is closer to Utah’s rules than to Saudi laws and promoting “family values” instead of imposing sharia norms on women.

In the coming months the hot issue in Egypt, beyond the status of women, will be religious freedom. Not in the sense that Coptic Christians will have less freedom to practice — there were a lot of limitations under the so-called secular dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak — but in defining religious freedom as not merely a minority right but an individual human right, implying the right to convert from Islam to Christianity.

The issue is institutionalizing democracy, not promoting liberal policies. Democracy could take hold only if it is based in well-established values. Liberalism does not precede democracy; America’s Founding Fathers were not liberal. But once democracy is rooted in institutions and political culture, then the debate on freedom, censorship, social norms and individual rights could be managed through freedom of expression and changes of majorities in parliament. However, there will be no institutionalization of democracy without the Muslim Brothers.

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