Islamists in Government: Lessons from their Successes and Failures

The question of whether Islamist groups are compatible with democracy has been a topic of serious discussion for some time, especially considering the claims that Islamists have structural impediments when it comes to adapting to various social and political contexts. The success or failure to integrate Islamists into governance should not be determined by the success of their specific policies when in government, but instead by their ability to work within and respect democratic institutions and principles, and to reassure wide sectors of society that an Islamist-led government would not throw out democracy. Some currents of political Islam have enjoyed this kind of success: examples include the Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) in Turkey (especially in the period 2002-2013), the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (P.J.D.) and Ennahda in post-Ben Ali Tunisia.

The A.K.P.’s experience in Turkey had been largely successful, despite recent undemocratic practices that have been perpetrated by the Erdogan government. These practices—such as the mistreatment of dissidents, and crackdown on media and academics—constitute a clear attack on democratic values and human rights. Nevertheless, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains supported by the majority of the electorate, winning around 52 percent of the popular vote in the 2014 elections, and faces a relatively powerful opposition in and out of parliament.

The shortcomings of the Turkish government parallel those of other dominant-party systems such as the African National Congress in South Africa, the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico, and United Russia, all of which restrict or restricted pluralism to remain in power. In this sense, the faults of the Erdogan government are mostly linked to its longevity and consolidation of power, rather than its Islamism. In its first decade in power, the A.K.P. under Erdogan enjoyed economic and political success before succumbing to the temptation of power and becoming a semi-authoritarian regime.

The P.J.D. in Morocco also stands as a successful case as it integrated into the hybrid monarchy/democracy system that King Mohammed VI has developed since 2011. Although electorally the strongest, the P.J.D. has behaved as a party like any other, not trying to impose a strict Islamist agenda on society nor threaten a ‘coup’ against the overall political order.  

Ennahda in Tunisia is another success story. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia has been only a political party (as opposed to a religious movement) from its inception; as such, it is suited to compromising with its political adversaries when necessary.

As part of the troika that spearheaded the Jasmine Revolution, Ennahda was able to reach compromises with its opponents. For instance, after the assassination of the leftist Tunisian activist Chokri Belaid, Ennahda responded to the demands of the opposition by reforming its cabinet with widely acceptable technocrats. In addition, after the Muslim Brotherhood’s fall from power in Egypt sparked violent demonstrations against Ennahda’s rule in Tunisian cities, Ennahda fully accepted a cabinet of neutral experts from outside the party. These compromises contrast with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s refusal to accommodate other movements and parties, nor to replace any of its ministers with members from outside the party.

Why were the Turkish, Moroccan, and Tunisian cases successful where others were not? In the first two cases, the parties rose to power in the shadow of a stable political and constitutional order. Secularism is the basis of Turkish governance, and Erdogan has not succeeded in fundamentally changing that.

In the case of Ennahda, actors like the Tunisian General Labour Union and lawyer and feminist groups have played a significant role in restraining Ennahda’s attempts to impose a religious model on the Tunisian people. Indeed, the success of Islamists is linked to the presence of existing systems that force them to integrate and adapt within the boundaries of the law. In cases where Islamists came to power following the collapse of the state (as in Iraq) or after a revolution leaving them in charge of writing new laws (as in Egypt), the Islamists were doomed to clash with others and fail.

Islamists experienced clear failure in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Sudan. In Egypt, a religious group, rather than a political party, came to power and found itself unprepared to govern and unwilling to accept and reinforce a democratic order. In Iraq, the collapse of the state opened the door for sectarian Sunni and Shiite parties to compete destructively for their shares in power. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has proven effective on the battlefield, but unable to sustain a political order. In Palestine, Hamas abandoned the idea of Palestinian statehood in favor of its conflict with Fatah, and supporters of both parties began to prioritize party allegiance over national allegiance. In Sudan, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power after Sudan’s division and a shift in the army to a religious creed, resulting in the Muslim Brotherhood’s permanent hold on power.

When Islamist groups come to power still as religious movements and not as political parties, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, they are neither equipped for the challenges of governance and policymaking, nor the politics of negotiation and compromise with other political groups, which are necessary for political survival and success.  

Successful Islamist parties, such as those we have mentioned, arrived to power in dialogue with the existing political order as well as with political rivals. In contrast, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood once in power sought to overturn both the revolutionary moment and the existing state order, and rejected cooperation and compromise with other political groups.  

Finally, a doctrine of superiority often characterizes the intellectual structure of Islamist political groups that have not made the real step toward becoming a political party. They confront political opposition by asserting their own righteousness, often dismissing the ruling political regime and even the entire nation simply as ‘un-Islamic.’ These Islamists emphasize that their doctrines derive from the word of God, and hence they cannot acknowledge or deal with opposition or failure, since that would be, in their mind, to question the holy source itself.  For Islamists to succeed, they must distinguish between their religious faith and the policies and processes required in the fields of political competition and governance. Where Islamist groups have done this, as in Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia, they have played a prominent and often positive role in their countries evolution; where they have not, most notably in Egypt, they have contributed to governance paralysis, social polarization, a return of the deep state, and regression along the path of democratization.