To integrate Islamist parties, invest in civil society


If Egypt’s liberal activists had tolerated Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi’s illiberal but weak rule until he could be voted out, democracy might have had a chance, David D. Kirkpatrick suggests in “Into the Hands of the Soldiers.”

Their mistake, he says, was “they trusted [military commander Abdel Fattah el-]Sisi.” They chose the greater of two evils. But he doesn’t fully explore the risks of sticking with Morsi. Nor does he analyze how a revolution works, how power can be seized and lost so easily, analyst Steve Negus writes for The New York Times.

But nor did the liberal democratic civil society activists know – as the Muslim Brotherhood clearly did – how to make the transition from protest to politics, he adds.

“The activists’ ability to organize street demonstrations, I would argue, was the kind of ‘magic’ that — for limited periods — could make a revolution (or a coup) possible. However, they never really understood its limits,” he notes in his review of Kirkpatrick’s book:

I remember liberals in 2013 brushing off the threat from Sisi: If he tried to seize power, they’d just make another revolution. They didn’t grasp that you get only so many chances at revolution. A week of civil disorder is thrilling; three years are exhausting. Alliances broken are hard to rebuild. If you throw out too many elected governments, even bad ones, you’ll throw out democracy with them.

Policymakers who want to see Islamist parties successfully integrated into their countries’ political systems should invest in those countries’ civil societies, say analysts Adel Abdel Ghafar and Bill Hess. A vibrant domestic civil society can serve two important functions in scenarios where Islamist parties are entering governing structures, they write for Brookings Doha Center:

  • First, as in Tunisia and Egypt, civil society organizations can serve as counterbalances to Islamist parties that attempt to overreach. It was lawyers in Egypt who successfully challenged the first Constituent Assembly’s legality, getting it disbanded. In Tunisia, the prominent labor union was able to stand up to Ennahda when the country’s other political parties were too fragmented and disorganized to do so effectively.
  • Second, international civil society organizations can contribute to parties governing more effectively and more pluralistic political scenes. For example, they can help political parties in these countries, Islamist or otherwise, professionalize.

The National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) engagement with the PJD in Morocco is a case in point, they add in Islamist Parties in North Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt:

Over the past decade, the NDI has engaged with reform-minded PJD members through seminars and workshops, lending its assistance and expertise to help the party learn how to better operate within democratic institutions. In Tunisia, where Ennahda has outpaced its competition in terms of organization and campaigning, NDI is helping other parties get their houses in order. In the future, they should be more effective in representing other segments of Tunisia’s population, to the country’s benefit.

Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahdha party, makes the case for the compatibility of Islam and democracy in the July 2018 edition of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.

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