25 - 31 December 2008
Issue No. 927
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Between ideology and tactics
Tension between religious and democratic concepts still plagues the political 
life of moderate Islamist movements, write Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy 


Moderate Islamist parties and movements that have adopted the strategic option 
of taking part in official political life in the Arab world are up against a 
range of ideological and tactical obstacles associated with the extent to which 
they are structurally and doctrinally democratic, on the one hand, and the 
degree of their commitment to democratic standards and processes in practice on 
the other.

Ideologically, moderate Islamist movements and parties are torn between their 
faith that the law regulating the bonds between the state, society and the 
individual must be founded upon the word of God -- i.e. Islamic Sharia law -- 
and the concept of a civil democratic government whereby laws are formulated on 
the basis of majority vote in a legislature created by the people by means of 
free and fair elections. It is a formidable conundrum. How can parties that 
describe themselves as Islamist relinquish the principle of Sharia law as the 
basis of legislation if they want to maintain their credibility in the public 
eye and their popular bases of support? Conversely, how can a party that calls 
itself democratic strive to place its candidates in parliament through the 
electoral process and work together with other opposition parties to press for 
a more open political system without committing itself to the principles of 
plurality and majority rule and the mechanisms for applying these principles?

The tension between the religious vision and the democratic concept, which no 
Islamist party or movement in the Arab world has been able to resolve, is at 
the root of the ongoing conflict within these organisations between ideologues 
who are constantly pushing to expand the realm of Sharia law in the legal and 
judicial systems in their countries and pragmatists who tend towards more 
liberal interpretations of the "Islamic state". The controversy extends beyond 
the question of the source of law to include the extent to which religion 
should play a part in the public sphere, and acceptance of the principle of 
plurality outside of the political context. Of particular concern are the 
questions of freedom of belief, the interplay between proselytising and 
politics in Islamist organisational structures and activities, and the 
resultant confusion between identity-based rhetoric and elements of a political 
agenda in Islamist appeals and practices.

Tactically, Islamist parties and movements find themselves regularly forced to 
reconsider their commitment to participate in the official political process. 
After all, they are operating in countries whose ruling elites themselves are 
not committed to democratic procedures or standards and, indeed, avail 
themselves of all possible autocratic means to obviate the growth of the 
importance of elections and of the role of opposition forces. Consequently, 
Islamists, like all other opposition movements, must determine whether 
participating in elections at their various presidential, legislative and 
municipal levels is worthwhile or whether the likelihood of tampering with the 
electoral process and falsifying the will of the electorate is so high as to 
render competing in such elections an exercise in futility. For Islamists, this 
dilemma is even more acute since the ruling elites fear them more than their 
liberal and leftist adversaries and, therefore, make it even tougher for 
Islamist movements and parties to participate in the political process.

Indeed, there are tactical risks to political participation under the 
domination of authoritarian or semi- authoritarian ruling elites. Taking part 
in elections that offer only the prospect of limited games can weaken the 
Islamists' position since their poor returns in the polls could be used to 
portray them as marginal and ineffective forces. They also risk alienating 
large segments of their grassroots support that believe that taking part in 
elections under current conditions is both ideologically and strategically 
wrong. The risk is compounded by the fact that the more it becomes apparent 
that the returns on political participation are low the greater grows the 
influence of critics of this strategy within the Islamist movement. On the 
other hand, taking part in the political process does offer Islamists the 
chance to demonstrate that they are committed to democratic standards and 
procedures. They can say that in spite of all the obstacles ruling regimes have 
put in their way they are not only dedicated democrats but also capable of 
scoring gains through the ballot box. In addition, boycotting elections 
deprives Islamists of the opportunity of making their presence felt in the 
realms of legislative and municipal assemblies, in which they could affect, if 
only in a limited capacity, public affairs.

There is another tactical dilemma Islamists face when participating in the 
political process. How many candidates should they field at any one time? 
Theoretically, Islamists like other opposition parties, want to gain the 
greatest number of seats possible in an assembly. However, the record of 
contemporary Arab history offers sobering advice. The electoral victory of the 
Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria in 1991 and the Hamas victory in Gaza and 
the West Bank in 2006 cautions Islamist movements to keep their electoral 
aspirations modest and to not strive to sweep the polls. The consequences can 
be disastrous: the army's seizure of power in Algeria and the international 
boycott of Gaza and the ongoing rift between Fatah and Hamas. Islamist 
movements and parties seem to have heeded this caution, reducing the number of 
candidates so as to allay the fear of the advent of Islamic governments via the 
ballot box.

For example, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood's political party, the Islamic 
Action Front, fielded 36 candidates for 80 parliamentary seats in 1993, 30 for 
110 seats in 2003, and 22 for the same number of vacancies in 2007. Similarly, 
in the 2005 legislative elections the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had 144 
candidates running as independents whereas in the Shura Council elections in 
2007 only 19 Muslim Brotherhood candidates competed for the 88 available 
vacancies. Yet despite the Islamists' self-imposed restrictions on their 
electoral participation, ruling elites and segments of the liberal and 
left-wing opposition continue to harbour fears of Islamist intentions. It 
appears that the only way Islamists in favour of political participation can 
allay such fears is to resign themselves to keeping their electoral gains to a 

Kirim email ke