Transformation of Political Islam in a Changing Regional Order Book

This book examines and analyses the ongoing transformation of Political Islam Movements (PIMs) in seven countries where the Arab uprisings phenomenon took different forms: massive mobilization that induced leadership change (Tunisia and Egypt), limited demonstrations with a reformist agenda (Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait), and a bloody civil war (Syria and Yemen). The idea behind this research design was to understand how PIMs acted and reacted in response to the different challenges and opportunities created by the Arab uprisings in different contexts.


Political Islam – both as an ideology and a social movement – has witnessed massive changes since the onset of the Arab uprisings in late 2010. Despite all their shortcomings, the Arab uprisings permanently altered the political dynamics of the Al Sharq region and left a lasting impact on its social and political structures, including political Islam movements (PIMs).

After decades of limited political participation, suppression, marginalization, co-option and containment, PIMs found themselves within an utterly new reality. In some cases, PIMs in the region were able to ascend to power and gain international acceptance for the first time in their histories. In other cases, PIMs became involved in protracted civil wars fuelled by complicated regional alliances and enmities or fell victim to bloody crackdowns concomitant with aggressive campaigns against political Islam. Overall, the Arab uprisings changed the dynamics of the inclusion/exclusion of PIMs in the Al Sharq region in a number of important ways.

Our task force has examined and analysed the ongoing transformation of PIMs in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Composed of thirteen research fellows and research assistants, it worked from February to December 2018 on seven countries where the Arab uprisings phenomenon took different forms: massive mobilization that induced leadership change (Tunisia and Egypt), limited demonstrations with a reformist agenda (Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait), and bloody civil war (Syria and Yemen).

The idea behind this research design was to understand how PIMs acted and reacted in response to the different challenges and opportunities created by the Arab uprisings in different contexts.

In order to achieve this goal, the concept document of the task force specified four main themes to be studied:

Theme 1: Structural Remodelling

In this theme, the different structural and organizational transformations of PIMs were explored. These included structural adaptations such as the redefinition of the relationship between a religious movement and its affiliated party, the establishment of a violent wing or a militia, or the reconsideration of its structural relationship with the international Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In addition, unintentional structural changes that took place as a result of internal disputes or repression and crackdown were also considered, including defections and fragmentation.

Theme 2: Strategic and Ideological Transformation

This theme aimed at examining changes in the strategy and/or ideology of PIMs since the commencement of the Arab uprisings. In other words, how the different circumstances PIMs faced affected their strategies and views regarding important topics such as engagement in formal politics and commitment to peaceful change. 

Theme 3: Evaluating PIMs in Government 

In three cases (namely, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco), PIMs came to power, or at least became part of the government, following the Arab uprisings. Consequently, this theme was concerned with examining the policies adopted by the PIMs in power. This included their economic policies, their project of security institutions reform, their management of religious affairs, their approach to human rights and minorities, and the main features of their foreign policies.

Theme 4: Self-Evaluation and Ideological Revision 

The aim of this theme was to study the evaluation and ideological revision activities that have taken place within PIMs since the Arab uprisings. These activities were reported to have happened in the cases of Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan amongst others. The analysis meant to cover many aspects such as the driving factors behind evaluation and revision, how they were organized, who was involved, and what their recommendations were.

Besides conducting many fieldworks and interviews with Islamist leaders and experts in Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Turkey, and London, the task force organized two major round-table conferences in February and September and a follow-up workshop for the task force team in May 2018. Dozens of high-profile Islamist leaders from all over the region participated, as well as many prominent academics and scholars on PIMs. 

Defining PIMs

The definition of PIMs was a matter of great debate and thorough discussion by the task force team during the initial phase of the project. Not all Islamic movements can be categorized as PIMs; therefore, it was important to reach a common understanding and an agreed-upon definition of PIMs in order to decide which organizations should be included in the analysis in each case study.

Needless to say, PIMs are classically defined as movements that seek to form an Islamic government (or establish an Islamic state) and to “Islamize” society. In other words, they believe in the concept of comprehensive Islam that should be sovereign over all social domains – a target that can only be achieved using the authoritative power of a state. 

However, what makes the definition of a PIM so contentious is the great diversity of ideological and structural forms that are to be found under that banner. Ideologically, for instance, some of these movements, categorized as moderates, believe in gradual non-violent change and acknowledge the legitimacy of existing regimes, while others, known as radicals, seek the violent toppling of the existing systems and adopt a top-down “Islamization” strategy. Furthermore, the movement of any given PIM along this moderateradical continuum frequently occurs according to changing contexts. 

Structurally, PIMs have taken different forms: political parties, religious institutions, charity organizations, lobbies, armed groups, or hybrid forms.

What concerned us more during discussions was how to differentiate between PIMs and Salafi Jihadi Movements (SJMs). It was argued that PIMs were willing to work within the framework of the modern state and just aimed to reform/Islamize existing regimes, whereas the goal of SJMs was to transform the state system itself and even the international order if possible.

Also, SJMs adopted violent means to induce political change, while PIMs were generally gradualist and non-violent. Furthermore, it was stated that PIMs were founded as social movements, while SJMs started as militias and their membership was closed, selective and neither open nor public.

Part of this argument was contested, given the fact that the MB – the classical example of a PIM – was originally founded as a challenge to the nation-state, with the aim of restoring the Islamic Caliphate and change the state system in the region. Nevertheless, it was agreed that the task force should only look into the movements’ current ideologies and agendas that reflect its recognition of the modern state system.

Additionally, it was argued that, on many occasions, the MB practiced violence against local rulers, as well as foreign occupiers in pursuit of its political goals. However, an agreement was reached among the team that although PIMs might use violence occasionally, they do not resort to it as a routine element in their political struggle.

Another debate occurred on whether the Salafi movements should be categorized as being among PIMs or not. Non-violent Salafi parties such as the al-Nour Party in Egypt can clearly be considered to be part of the political Islam phenomenon. Yet, not all Salafi movements establish a political wing or a party, and many of them remain exclusively religious organizations. Therefore, after discussions, it was concluded that Salafi groups that establish a political party or engage in politics routinely and systematically in a party style (i.e., field candidates into elections, advocating political platforms and agendas, etc.) should be included in PIMs.

Academic Approaches to the Study of PIMs

How to study PIMs was also an important topic for discussion in the task force. Many approaches and theoretical frameworks have previously been used in an attempt to capture this multifaceted and ever-evolving phenomenon. But it is important to bear in mind here that the selection of approaches and frameworks could be ideologically driven. For instance, securitizing the phenomenon of political Islam by focusing on dimensions like radicalization, extremism, and terrorism implicitly interiorizes the belief that PIMs are a potential or even an actual security threat.

Hence, the ultimate goal of research efforts, in that case, becomes how to combat this phenomenon and neutralize its dangers, if we cannot totally get rid of it. As stated above, the phenomenon of political Islam includes a vast array of ideologies and many radical and militant groups are categorized as “Islamists”, but to ignore the diversity among the PIMs or to solely highlight the extremist faction and position it as the core of this phenomenon is somewhat misleading. 

Another conventional approach is to study PIMs focusing on their ideology by examining their founding documents and the basic premises of their main ideologues. This usually entails a discourse analysis approach to comprehend how these movements address issues like state, democracy, social justice, and minority rights, or a comparative approach to outline the similarities and differences between various trends within these movements.

Despite being of academic value, this hardly enables researchers to go beyond the initial theoretical stances, as their political behaviour cannot be solely attributed to and explained by their ideological convictions.

Two widely used approaches in the scholarship of political Islam are the social movement and party politics approaches. The first is concerned with how PIMs formulate their agendas, mobilize resources to advocate for them, recruit and reproduce their membership, and communicate with and influence the public. The other is more concerned with formal politics: elections, poll results, political alliances, platforms, parliamentary agendas, and the like. Both approaches focus on PIMs as manifested in their way of organizing and acting and deal neutrally with the phenomenon of political Islam, without making any special assumptions about PIMs due to their Islamic nature.

Moreover, in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, it became increasingly popular to address political Islam using a democratization approach. This approach greatly focuses on the agent factor, hypothesizing that the fate of democratization process primarily depends on the choices made by political actors. As major socio-political actors in almost all Arab uprisings countries, a great deal of research and analysis has focused on the strategies adopted and decisions made by political Islam movements and whether their behaviour has facilitated or hindered the process of democratic transition.

The mere idea that political Islam could play a favorable role in democratization obviously reflects a positive attitude from the liberal perspective – an attitude that contrasts with those that perceive this phenomenon as a security concern.

A prominent feature in the new atmosphere in the wake of the Arab uprisings is regional stratification between the so-called pro-Arab uprisings and counter-revolutionary camps, with the subsequent involvement of international powers. This led many to approach political Islam from international and geopolitical perspectives, examining how PIMs managed their regional and international relations and how they shaped the agenda and the policies of such powers towards the region in return.

Within these frameworks, theories traditionally used to interpret the behaviour of political actors (such as political opportunity theory and rational choice theory) fit well to the study of PIMs. However, inclusion-moderation theory has also become very important in this field. The main premise of this theory is that political groups are expected to become more moderate if they are formally included and allowed to legally work in a pluralist political system.

Many explanations have been proposed for this tendency but the principal one is that organizations seek moderation in order to appeal to a wider range of voters. Nevertheless, this theory confines its scope to the interplay between the regime and the PIMs in terms of inclusion/exclusion, overlooking other variables.

As the task force tackled this theory, an important question arose: what does moderation exactly mean? Does it simply mean being more in alignment with liberal democratic ideology? How can we reach an appropriate definition of moderation surpassing this reductionism?

After exploring different patterns of transformation in the PIMs in the region, three main parameters were identified: whether the PIMs accepted the use of violence or not, whether they were willing to cooperate with other ideological groups or not, and whether they adopted a reform agenda or demanded radical regime change.

In other words, if the PIMs in a given country abstained from using violent means in political struggles, demonstrated a real intention to work with other ideological groups, or gave up their demands for massive and radical political change, these should be perceived as signs of moderation, and vice versa.

Book Outline:

In the following chapters, seven case studies looking at different contexts will be examined starting with the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, where the Arab uprisings manifested in large popular mobilizations that resulted in the unseating of the old autocratic leaders and carried Islamists to power for a short while. 

In the first chapter, Ezzeddine Abdelmoula focuses on the transformation that took place in the Tunisian Ennahda Movement. He argues that the Ennahda Movement has witnessed unmistaken changes both ideologically and structurally since the Arab uprisings began. On the ideological level, although the movement managed to preserve a broad “Islamist” framework, the intellectual content within this framework has largely changed.

Structurally, the Ennahda Movement carried out an organizational remodelling and decided to separate its political and preaching (daʿwa) activities and to become a classical national democratic party, justifying this move by the need for “specialization”. However, interestingly, Abdelmoula traces the roots of these changes and concludes that all these transformations have been happening gradually within the movement since its inception, simply accelerating following the Arab uprisings.

In the case of Egypt, Lucia Ardovini examines the transformation of the PIMs through the framework of the “competition for Islamic authority”, as she puts it. Accordingly, she explores different trajectories pursued after the January Revolution by the MB, the Salafi trend, and the Al Azhar institution, which does not fit within the classical category of political Islam. Special attention has been paid to changing dynamics in the relationship between these three actors in the aftermath of the 2013 coup.

She generally argues that the ongoing transformation of political Islam in Egypt can be summarized through the rapid move of the MB from the periphery to the center of Egyptian politics before being violently pushed back to its margins again to enter into a state of “stagnation” and “soul-searching”; the Salafist venture into politics, revealing unexpected efficiency, as well as pragmatism; and Al Azhar’s growing independence from regime institutions.

In conclusion, she states that it is naïve to assume that Islamism in Egypt begins and ends with the MB and says that, despite looking very different now, the Islamist narratives and actors are still active in Egypt.

In a different context, PIMs did not act as a force for change pushing for the downfall of the regime. Rather, they maintained a conservative attitude and adopted a reform agenda with relatively less ambitious political demands. In countries such as Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait, popular mobilization did not reach a threshold that really jeopardized the persistence of the regime either due to efficient strategies of dissuasion and co-option by the regime, indecisive and ambivalent opposition, unfavourable domestic and regional circumstances, or all these factors.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that this choice worked out well for some PIMs, such as the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD), which managed to win the parliamentary elections of 2011 – and of 2016 – to form an Islamist cabinet for the first time in Moroccan history.

Intissar Fakir’s chapter examines the dilemma that Moroccan Islamists faced in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Fakir states that the Moroccan Islamists, mainly the PJD, its proselytizing wing, the Reform and Unity Movement (MUR), and the Justice and Spirituality group (Al Adl Wal Ihsan, or AWI) used to operate within a well-defined political space and accommodate the red lines imposed by the monarchy.

However, what has changed since 2011 is that public opinion has injected itself more forcefully into the political sphere, making the Islamists’ task of balancing their relationship with the monarchy and with their supporters more difficult. 

Although the PJD and AWI have followed different paths – the first adopted the strategy of “reform from within stability” and refused to join the uprisings, while the latter gathered forces with the February 20 Movement in an attempt to achieve a radical change in the political status quo – both are facing now great challenges in terms of withstanding pressure from the monarchy, maintaining their internal coherence, and securing public support.

The Jordanian Islamists seem to be facing the same challenges with much worse consequences. Their attempt to utilize the opportunity presented by the Arab uprisings to redefine their relationship with the monarchy “from participation to political partnership” and the backlash they suffered after the uprisings ended are the main topics addressed by Amjad Ahmed Jebreel in his chapter.

He argues that despite the MB in Jordan insisted on a reformist rather than revolutionist approach, the pressure they exerted for reform was perceived by the regime as an attempt to wage “a soft coup” against the king. Therefore, after the 2013 coup against the MB in Egypt, the movement in Jordan has witnessed severe setbacks regarding its relationship with the king and its ability to maintain unity and secure popular support.