Is there a Morsi Effect? An Overview of Political Islamists Electoral Performances Since 2013
Abstract: The 2013 coup in Egypt, ending the presidency of Muhammad Morsi after a chaotic year in power, was seen by many to symbolize the weakening of Islamist parties’ political appeal in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. However, what has been the actual electoral effect on Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties?
This article takes a closer look at parliamentary elections involving Brotherhood-affiliated political parties that have taken place in the region since 2013. In looking at these elections, we see that there has been no apparent “Morsi effect” which has negatively affected Brotherhood-affiliated parties post-2013. Rather, local political contexts and factors in these countries appear to have been the driving forces behind the performance of Brotherhood-affiliated parties.
Since the July 2013 military coup in Egypt that resulted in the end of Muhammad Morsi’s presidency, there have been wide-ranging discussions about the future of Islamist political parties in the MENA region.1 The fallout of Morsi’s ouster has placed the spotlight on the Muslim Brotherhood’s future political prospects not only in Egypt, but in other countries with Brotherhood-affiliated political parties.
Additionally, this conflict, which on the surface appears to be being fought between political actors and the military in Egypt, is also part of a wider regional competition for political power and influence. On one side, states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have sought to ban or, at the very least, severely limit the political strength of Brotherhood-affiliated organizations.
Conversely, countries such as Qatar and Turkey are seen as supportive of Brotherhood-affiliated groups and are open competitors to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for regional influence. This has resulted, in the case of Qatar, in political tensions with other Gulf states and in large part has led to the current economic and political blockade of Qatar by a number of Arab countries.
The competition for regional influence and power among Gulf countries as well as the long-term consequences of the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have understandably been a primary focus of observers of the region. However, this article will instead focus on the direct implications, if any, that the events in Egypt may have had on the electoral performance and prospects of other Islamist political parties in the MENA region, particularly those parties tied to Brotherhood branches or which have taken their founding principles from the Muslim Brotherhood’s school of political thought.
At first glance, there may be a tendency to see the chaotic end of Muhammad Morsi as having a direct detrimental effect, or “Morsi effect,” on the electoral prospects of other Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist parties in the MENA region. This assumption requires closer examination. In looking at these Brotherhood-affiliated groups, a brief summary of each party’s history will be provided along with some context for each party’s political performance in post-2013 parliamentary elections.
Even though there is a tendency to group political parties whose origins are associated with Muslim Brotherhood or which were started as Brotherhood branches, each party should be studied and understood with reference to these parties’ particular political, economic, and social contexts. Each political party discussed in this article has its own distinct history, electoral strategies, and political environment that has shaped their individual character over the last several decades.
Moreover, political parties in the MENA region with origins in Brotherhood political thought have differing relationships to other Brotherhood organizations. For instance, Hadas in Kuwait has its founding roots in Muslim Brotherhood thought. However, the party broke off its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait3 due to their disagreement over the U.S. intervention to end this occupation.
Another example is the Moroccan Justice and Development Party, whose founders were informed by Muslim Brotherhood political thought, even though some of its leaders have recently denied any close connections to the Brotherhood.4 While it is important to discuss these parties within the wider framework of examining how Sunni Islamist parties, and particularly those with roots in Brotherhood political thought, have performed in elections since 2013, each context must be examined in light of a particular party’s independence in dealing with local and national concerns and issues.
The first section of this article will examine seven countries in the MENA region (Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia) that have conducted parliamentary elections since 2013 in which Brotherhoodaffiliated parties participated. These post2013 electoral results will be compared with the past electoral performances of Brotherhood-affiliated parties in these countries.
The focus of this section is not to make any definitive claims about how the events in Egypt have influenced particular elections in the region, but to study the parliamentary election results in these countries to determine if any overarching trends or patterns are evident. The second section of this article will then take a closer look at the Tunisian and Moroccan contexts and discuss what type of effect the events in Egypt may have had in the region.
The final section will then discuss the future electoral prospects of Brotherhood-affiliated political parties in light of their electoral performances since 2013.
Parliamentary Elections Before and After 2013: Country Overviews
In order to better analyze the electoral results of Brotherhood-affiliated parties, it is necessary to compare these parties’ pre-2013 electoral performances with their performances post-2013. It is important to note that the political contexts in which each party operates differ widely depending on many different factors. In providing some structure to understanding how these parties have performed since 2013, it is helpful to divide them into categories based on the political environment in which they exist.
The first grouping will examine Morocco and Tunisia, countries where Brotherhood-affiliated parties have represented, at some point, the largest parliamentary bloc in parliament and where it should be easiest to detect some sort of detrimental effect stemming from the events in Egypt.
The second grouping will look at Jordan, Kuwait, and Mauritania, where Brotherhoodaffiliated parties are one of the larger parliamentary blocs but are nonetheless relatively small compared to the total number of parliamentary seats. The third and final grouping will examine Iraq and Lebanon, where Brotherhood-affiliated parties operate in sectarian contexts and have mostly been overshadowed by other political parties.
1) Parliamentary Powers: The Cases of Morocco and Tunisia
The core political tenets of the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (JDP) have their origins in the Muslim Brotherhood’s political thought. However, as stated in the introduction, party leaders have disputed the connection and have instead pointed out that while they share common, broad ideological similarities and influences from writers associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, they deny any further relationship with the Brotherhood.
The official founding of the JDP occurred in 1998, although its ideological roots can be traced back to the Islamic movements formed in the early 1990s and led by future JDP leaders.5 The JDP slowly became a political force, culminating in winning the most seats of any political party in the 2011 parliamentary elections.
The JDP has been involved in a number of elections since its inception in 1998. However, for the purposes of this article, the results of the 2011 and 2016 parliamentary elections will be the focal point, as these elections serve as important data points for the trajectory of the party in the post-2013 MENA region. The 2011 parliamentary elections witnessed a strong showing for the JDP when it won a total of 107 seats out of the 395 available parliamentary seats.6
As a result, the JDP, along with two other nonIslamist parties, formed the majority bloc in parliament with JDP leader Abdelilah Benkirane becoming Prime Minister.
Even after the events that led to the downfall of Morsi in Egypt, the 2016 parliamentary elections witnessed even a stronger showing from the JDP than in the previous election, with the party going on to win 125 parliamentary seats. This strong electoral showing, however, brought several challenges in the forming of a government. In all, Prime Minister Benkirane was unable to form a coalition government, with King Muhammad VI intervening and tapping JDP member Saad Eddine Othmani with the task of forming a government and Othmani eventually becoming Prime Minister.
While Othmani is a member of the JDP, King Muhammad VI has both demonstrated his power in installing a Prime Minister more to his liking as well as fueling rifts within the JDP. The competition among different factions of the JDP may adversely affect the party in the future, especially considering the attempts by the King to weaken the party’s political power and prospects.
The Tunisian Ennahda Party traces its roots to the early 1970s, although it was not officially a political party in the country until 2011.9 The overthrow of longtime dictator Zine al-Abidine Bin Ali in January 2011, was a result of mass protests in Tunisia, marked the beginning of events widely known as the Arab Spring.
This string of events abruptly changed the political landscape of the country and region. Ennahda, having built a strong organizational base in the years prior to 2011, was poised to play a major political role in the country’s future.
There have been two post-Bin Ali parliamentary elections in Tunisia occurring in 2011 and 2014 respectively. The 2011 election results demonstrated Ennahda’s strong organizational prowess when it won 90 of the 217 parliamentary seats, thus becoming the biggest party bloc in parliament.10 This allowed Ennahda to form an interim government with two non-Islamist political parties and to control important posts such as the prime ministry and also exert influence on the democratic transition of the country.
However, in the years that followed, political tensions rose, economic and political progress was slow, and the assassination of leftist politicians who were Ennahda’s political opponents led to a political crisis in the country. Moreover, political tensions surrounding the rule of Muhammad Morsi in Egypt furthered the perception that Islamist parties could not effectively lead a government, a perception that contributed to Ennahda’s calculations in trying to find a peaceful and workable political solution to the crisis.
An agreement between major political forces which stemmed from months of dialogue beginning in the fall of 2013 (sponsored by the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet), allowed for new parliamentary and presidential elections as well as the writing of a new constitution to avoid further political deterioration and perhaps widespread violence.
The 2014 parliamentary elections saw Ennahda’s number of parliamentary seats reduced to 69, where it was the second largest party bloc in the Tunisian parliament.11 Ennahda then entered into a coalition government with Nidaa Tounes, which had won the most parliamentary seats and was seen as Ennahda’s strongest rival.12 However, Ennahda recently announced it would leave this coalition, which appears to be a political calculation to better position itself for the upcoming 2019 parliamentary elections.
2) Represented but Weak: The Cases of Jordan, Kuwait, and Mauritania
The political branch of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is called the Islamic Action Front (IAF) and is a relatively recent creation, having been founded in 1992.13 The Islamic Action Front has participated in a number of elections since its creation, but has also boycotted several parliamentary elections due to complaints about the Jordanian parliamentary electoral system.
The party boycotted the 2010 and 2013 parliamentary elections, arguing that the Jordanian electoral system benefited tribal parties to the detriment of better organized political parties.
In parliamentary elections, there are 110 available seats in the Jordanian parliament and parties are relatively weak in the country. In the 2003 parliamentary elections, the Islamic Action Front performed well, winning 17 seats.14 However, the 2007 election was seen as a failure for the IAF when the party won only six parliamentary seats, a result that led to electoral boycotts.15
After boycotting both the 2010 and 2013 elections due to what it saw as an unfair electoral system, the IAF ran as part of a diverse electoral coalition which included non-Islamist candidates and parties in 2016. This coalition won a total of 15 seats, with the Islamic Action Front being given 10 seats from this total.16 As a result, the IAF became the largest party-bloc in Jordan even though it accounted for a relatively small share of parliamentary seats.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has witnessed a few notable breakaway groups in recent years, which have now become electoral rivals to the organization’s Islamic Action Front. For example, the Zamzam Initiative, officially founded in 2013, was formed by Brotherhood members aligned with the more “moderate” wing of the organization. Candidates associated with the Zamzam faction won a total of five seats, although it is important to note that these winning candidates were non-Islamist members of the electoral list from tribal areas.
Another breakaway group calling itself the Muslim Brotherhood Society was officially formed in 2015 and won one seat in the 2016 parliamentary elections.18 Finally, the al-Wasat Party was founded in 2001 and has since been a competitor to the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood.19 By some estimates those aligned with this party won seven parliamentary seats, although the exact number is still up for debate.
Relative to other political parties in Jordan, Islamist parties performed well in the 2016 parliamentary elections despite the creation of breakaway parties. While the results of the 2016 parliamentary elections may be encouraging for some in the Muslim Brotherhood, the recent division and splits within the organization present challenges for the Islamic Action Front.
Additionally, the Jordanian police forced the closure of the Jordanian Brotherhood’s headquarters in 2016, a move viewed by many as aiming to stifle the Brotherhood’s political and social outreach, although the IAF still operates legally in the country.21 The threat of a restriction or ban of the Jordanian Brotherhood represents another major challenge for the organization and the IAF in the coming years.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait traces its origins back to the 1950s although its political participation through the Islamic Constitutional Movement, better known by the name Hadas, is relatively new and has only been operational since the 1990s.22 While Hadas has its founding roots in Brotherhood ideology, its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood on an international level was severed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.23
It should also be noted that discussing the performance of political parties in Kuwait is difficult. This stems from the fact that political parties are technically illegal in Kuwait, so it can be difficult to assign individual parliamentary seats to any one party or group.24 For instance, all winning candidates of the state’s 50-seat National Assembly in the 2016 election were labeled as “independents.”25 Nonetheless, Hadas is an active political organization in Kuwait and is typically labeled as an “opposition” group.
The electoral history of Hadas in the last decade has been mixed, with members of Hadas running in several elections while boycotting others. Because political parties are forbidden, governments are unstable, and several parliamentary elections have been called in the last decade, it is at times difficult to precisely assign seats to Hadas members. However, there have been a number of parliamentary elections in the past in which Brotherhood members have participated.
For instance, it has been reported that Hadas won six seats in the 2003 parliamentary elections while winning fewer seats consecutively in the 2006, 2008, and 2009 elections.26 Hadas then improved on past electoral performances by winning five parliamentary seats in the February 2012 election.27 Beginning with the second parliamentary election in 2012 and then again in 2013, Hadas and other political groups considered as part of the opposition staged a boycot to protest the move to a new voting system.28 In the latest parliamentary election, held in October 2016, Hadas and other opposition groups performed well.
While it is difficult to determine exactly how many Hadas members were elected to parliament, some estimates place Hadaslinked and other Islamist politicians as having secured 12 seats.
The political environment in which Hadas exists in Kuwait is unique in some respects due to the fact that Kuwait is a Gulf country and an ally of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The existence of Hadas in Kuwait may be tolerated because the party’s focus appears to be on internal policies and politics, making the party’s existence less controversial outside Kuwait’s borders.
However, Hadas must also deal with a political environment in Kuwait that has been rather unstable in recent years.30 The constant collapse of governments and call for new elections has created instances where there can be more than one parliamentary election per year.31 These conditions, along with the fact that individuals must run as independents, has created a challenging political environment which Hadas must continually navigate.
The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political group in Mauritania is called the National Assembly for Reform and Development but is mostly recognized by its shortened name Tawassul. This political party has not been widely studied in comparison to the other countries in the MENA region with participatory Islamist parties. This has to do, in part, with the fact that the party was not legalized until 2007, as the Mauritanian government forbade Islamist parties from obtaining legal status.32
However, before 2007 the members of the party had run as independent candidates and some of its members gained electoral experience in this way.33 It should also be noted that the political system in Mauritania is dominated by the Union for the Republic Party, which is headed by powerful president Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz. This has resulted in the Union for the Republic Party dominating electoral politics in recent years.
In the short time Tawassul has been an official party, it has seen moderate successes in the two elections since 2013. In the 2013 parliamentary elections, Tawassul managed to win 16 seats in the 147 seat parliament.34 In the 2018 parliamentary elections, Tawassul managed to win 14 seats and is currently the largest opposition party in Mauritania, although its number is dwarfed by the 89 seats held by the Union for the Republic Party.35
The president of Mauritania, Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz, is a loyal ally of Saudi Arabia and has used strong rhetoric against the Muslim Brotherhood in Mauritania while refusing to differentiate between violent extremists and other Islamists who seek to participate in elections.36 Moreover, since 2013, there have been governmentled efforts to stifle charities with links to the Muslim Brotherhood while also preventing some gatherings of the party.37 Even though the party has the second largest bloc of seats in parliament, its political future is tenuous and may be affected by continuing efforts to marginalize the party.
3) Brotherhood-Affiliated Parties in Sectarian Contexts: The Cases of Iraq and Lebanon
The Iraqi Islamic Party is the Brotherhoodaffiliated party in Iraq and was founded in 1960, although its roots in the country can be traced back to 1945.38 It is one of the largest Sunni political movements in Iraq and operates an extensive charity network. During the rule of Saddam Hussein, the party was outlawed and some leaders of the party left the country to control operations from abroad.39
It should also be noted that some party leaders have recently stated that the party is not directly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and have emphasized its independence from the organization, although its relationship with the Brotherhood is unclear in this respect.40 Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Islamic Party has oscillated between political participation as part of multiparty coalitions and forgoing electoral competition altogether. There are four elections to discuss in this regard.
Even though the first post-Saddam Hussein election in Iraq was held in 2005, the Iraqi Islamic Party boycotted this election after its demand to postpone elections was not met as well as other concerns stemming from the U.S. presence in Iraq.41 The party did participate in the 2010 election where it ran as part of the Iraqi Accord Front, a Sunni-oriented political list, which had won 44 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections.42
However, in large part due to internal splits and disagreements, this electoral coalition only won a total of six parliamentary seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections.43 In the 2014 election, the Iraqi Islamic Party ran as part of an electoral list called Muttahidoon, which gained a total of 23 seats in parliament, representing an improvement on the results of the Sunni-aligned Iraqi Accord list during the previous election cycle.
Even though it had participated in both the 2010 and 2014 parliamentary elections, the Iraqi Islamic Party announced in February 2018 that it would not participate in the parliamentary elections of that year.45 However, individuals who were affiliated with the party or were part of the party themselves were allowed to run.46 By some estimates, around 14 individuals affiliated with the party won parliamentary seats.47
The 2018 parliamentary elections in Iraq also witnessed a strong showing by political parties with Shia roots, demonstrating the overall strength of these parties.48 The Iraqi Islamic Party now faces a number of challenges in charting its future, especially in light of the strength of Shia parties in Iraq and the need to rebuild the country structurally and politically.
There have also been criticisms leveled against the party and its leaders concerning the party’s perceived failures to champion Sunni causes in Iraq and doubts about the abilities of its leaders to make the party a strong political force in the country.49 Both the sectarian political context of Iraq and criticism of the party from segments of the Sunni population appear to be the primary challenges the party faces in the future.