Islamists Bite the Ballot


By Saif Shahin,

Recent elections in Bahrain and Egypt are being criticized for all the usual reasons. Authoritarian regimes — one a monarchy, the other a quasi-military dictatorship — cracked down on the media and the small opposition forces that challenged them in the run-up to the polls, eventually holding ballots with little or no monitoring.

But a silver lining can be discerned in the dark cloud. Islamist opposition groups in both countries, instead of interrupting the polls with violence, decided to participate in them. This is in line with a growing tendency among Islamists to embrace democratic politics — even when they know the process to be skewed against them.

At a time when the decade-old militarist approach to dealing with Islamism has been laid bare as impotent, even counterproductive, governments should view this positive trend as reinforcing a new, more political approach to Islamist militancy.

Elections in the Gulf

Bahrain is a Shiite-majority nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy. The election to the lower house of the national assembly, the third since 2002, was held in two rounds on October 23 and October 30. In the weeks preceding the poll, the government arrested several outspoken Shiite clerics, including Abdul Jalil al Singace, a spokesman for the main opposition Haq Movement. Widespread protests and riots followed. The Haq Movement and some other political groups — Bahrain bans formal political parties — boycotted the election. Shiite Islamist groups such as the Islamic Action Society and Bahrain Freedom Movement also joined the boycott.

But the main Shiite opposition Al Wefaq as well as Sunni Islamist groups Al Asalah and Al Menbar participated. All Islamists campaign for socially conservative policies, such as a ban on alcohol and restrictions against women, while calling for political liberalization. Al Wefaq champions better housing and jobs for Shiites and speaks against the large-scale naturalization of Sunnis from other countries, which it views as a move to undermine the Shiite population’s dominance in Bahrain.

Al Wefaq won 18 of the 40 seats, up one seat from the outgoing assembly. The Sunni groups split five seats between them, down from 15 in 2006 when they contested as allies. Analysts said the boycott by other Shiite Islamists helped Al Wefaq. The government did not allow international monitors. Local NGOs that scrutinized the voting said the election was “procedurally acceptable,” although the overall electoral system remains unfair. .

Different Script

The script was slightly different for Islamists in Egypt, which elected its new assembly on November 28 and December 5. President Hosni Mubarak’s government began suppressing the main opposition Muslim Brotherhood almost a year in advance, jailing senior leaders as well as grassroots activists. More recently, it gagged the media and banned overseas and local monitors to hold what may have been “the most fraudulent parliamentary elections in its recent history.”

Three out of four voters boycotted the election, as did many leading opposition figures, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei. The Brotherhood initially appeared to be leaning toward a boycott as well — for instance, when its members voted out reformists in favor of radicals in internal elections earlier this year. However, the group finally decided to participate, albeit only in the first round.

Its leaders focused on issues such as the need for democratic rights and transparent elections in their campaign. They also spoke against the privatization of public services and the falling standards in the health, education, media, and religious endowment sectors. However, the group lost all its 88 seats in the 518-member assembly.

There were crucial differences in the degree to which the two regimes controlled the polls — leading to variations in the performance of Islamist and other opposition groups. Bahrain, like Egypt, made the electoral atmosphere difficult for the opposition, but it did not indulge in widespread ballot-stuffing to wipe it out. It doesn’t need to. The appointed upper house of the assembly can block legislations passed by the elected lower house, allowing the monarchy to rule unperturbed.

Egypt had marginally relaxed its political environment five years ago under pressure from the George W. Bush administration’s Middle East democracy drive, allowing the Brotherhood to reap its richest-ever electoral harvest. This time around, there was no U.S. pressure. Also, the stakes were much higher. The new parliament will elect a new president next year, when Mubarak is expected to pass on the reins to son Gamal after 30 years in power. The transition could be tricky, and Mubarak wants his house to be perfectly in order. The parliamentary vote is “a training exercise for the presidential elections in how you mobilize the party, the party machine,” said a senior ruling party official. But in countries where elected assemblies have limited powers anyway, the performance of particular groups in elections is only of partial significance. Participatory trends are more interesting — and important.

Participation Gathers Pace

Contrary to common wisdom, Islamist participation in elections is not an exception. Islamist groups in 21 countries have participated in 89 parliamentary elections over the past 40 years, according to a research by Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi. The trend has gathered pace in recent years, although participation generally hinges upon expectations of free and fair elections.

Participating Islamists often leave behind a violent past. The 82-year-old Brotherhood, for instance, is regarded as the precursor of all modern Islamist outfits. It was linked to the Nazis during World War II and blamed for many assassination and coup attempts in Egypt in the following decades. Its most influential ideologue in this period was Sayyid Qutb, whose incendiary writings are treated as gospel by Islamist militants the world over. But the Brotherhood gave up violence in the 1970s and has intermittently dabbled in electoral politics since then.

The leaders of Al Wefaq organized violent unrest that brought Bahrain to the brink of civil war in the 1990s. In this decade, however, they have turned to democratic politics. Islamists in countries such as Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria have made similar transitions from militancy to democracy. Those in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories participate in elections while still maintaining militant wings.

Such a turn indicates both ideological and tactical moderation. Militant Islamists traditionally do not accept the notion of nation-states, emphasizing instead the global Muslim ummah, or community. Many Islamists also consider democracy to be un-Islamic, as it gives precedence to manmade legislations over the divine law, or shari’a. Participating in elections marks a departure from both these hardline stances. Islamists also run the risk of antagonizing their core support, making it a difficult tactical choice. And participating in rigged elections, as Middle Eastern elections generally are, leaves Islamists — indeed Islam itself — open to the charge of failure.

In this context, the all-too-familiar news of two more farcical polls in the Middle East takes on a new meaning. Islamists who entered the fray in Bahrain and Egypt did so at considerable risk; the decision of some Bahraini Islamists not to participate and of the Muslim Brotherhood to pull out from the second round of voting in Egypt reinforces the tenuousness of this trend. Indeed, the Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front, the main opposition in Jordan, did not participate in the parliamentary election on November 9, citing unfair election laws.

Defying the Stereotype

Democratic participation is significant because it belies a number of myths about Islamists. It shows that Islamism is not always a mindless call to arms but a more complex phenomenon, comprising parallel, overlapping, and sometimes paradoxical principles. Islamists might originally have been ideologically opposed to the concepts of nation-states and elections, but they are also capable of intellectual evolution and compromise.

Also, Islamists aren’t necessarily opportunists who turn to elections only when they think they can win. This was the charge brought against the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria when it was denied certain electoral success in 1992, and against Hamas in 2006, when the international community did not recognize its victory in internationally monitored elections in the Palestinian territories. The participation of Muslim Brotherhood and Al Wefaq in elections skewed against them reflects a commitment to bringing about political change through legitimate means.

But perhaps the most significant question is: what kind of changes would Islamists try to bring about if they do come to power? Would they establish theocratic states, as happened in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution? Kurzman and Ijlal’s research suggests otherwise. A number of Islamist groups they studied dropped calls for the implementation of shari’a over successive elections, began offering secular justifications for democratic participation, and embraced global norms of political pluralism and human rights. A prime example is Turkey, which has been adding constitutional safeguards for democratic rule since the Justice and Development Party, which has Islamist roots, came to power in 2002.

From Militancy to Moderation

Democratic politics generally has a liberalizing influence on Islamists. This is to be expected: if the Muslim masses are not militant or radical, as is widely acknowledged, then groups that depend on their votes for survival would naturally have to soften their stances and look for moderate political platforms that are acceptable to the majority.

To be sure, the recent trend of Islamist participation in elections does not imply that militant Islamism is on the wane. Groups like al-Qaeda appear no closer to renouncing violence than they were on the morning of September 11, 2001 — despite some al-Qaeda dissidents recently calling for wider consultations with Muslim groups, scholars, and the intelligentsia on issues such as jihad. Terrorist plots continue to be uncovered, and some succeed. The call to violence continues to entrap gullible young Muslims who are disenfranchised by their governments, disenchanted by the economic and cultural strains of globalization, and disillusioned by the apathy of the global superpower.

But there is no one type of Islamist, nor is there a single Islamist agenda. That is precisely why Islamist groups need to be encouraged — or at least allowed — to participate in mainstream electoral politics. Opening up the space of legitimate political dissent can help delegitimize violence, draw existing and potential Islamists away from militancy and terrorism, and moderate their world view. After nearly a decade of trying and failing to beat the pulp out of them, this could be the only serious option left. And as the Bahraini and Egyptian elections show, Islamists may be more than willing to explore it.

Saif Shahin is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and a doctoral candidate in West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.


Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) is a “Think Tank Without Walls” connecting the research and action of more than 600 scholars, advocates, and activists seeking to make the United States a more responsible global partner. It is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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