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Islamism's Image Problem: Revolution Versus the Rhetoric of Resistance

H.A. Hellyer

The 21st century Arab Awakening has been a fascinating time for students of Islamist movements within the broader Middle East. Islamist movements have long held the mantle of being considered "resistance movements" against external and internal enemies: oppressive regimes, the West, Israel, and so forth. But the Arab uprisings of 2011, and the ongoing Arab Awakening, has brought many of those assumptions into question within the region—and the future of these movements are no longer assured in the same way as they once were.

Within the domain of the wider Arab world, Ḥizbullāh and Ḥamās have certainly seen their own fortunes undermined in some way. In the years before the uprisings took place, Ḥizbullāh and Ḥamās were well known in the region for combining an anti-imperialist political rhetoric with religious symbolism—an amalgamation that appealed to local populism and those with legitimate political grievances.

However, with the beginning of the Arab Awakening, those reputations began to falter. The two groups publicly supported the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, viewing them as a first step to ridding the region of two regimes that were uninterested in pursuing conflict with Israel. They found themselves, however, in a rather awkward situation soon thereafter. Like many in the Arab world, they were, to say the least, ambivalent vis-à-vis the NATO intervention in Libya; indeed, recent Gallup data reveals this ambivalence, although the revolutionaries in Libya (including those within the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood) had clearly accepted and supported such an incursion.

Ḥamās and Ḥizbullāh's deepest problems, however, took place with regard to Syria. For years, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, operating within its own geo-strategic interests, had supported Ḥamās and Ḥizbullāh for a variety of different reasons. When the revolution began, Ḥamās refused to take a strong stance against Assad early on—after all, Ḥamās had a strategically important presence in Damascus, and they shared a common enemy in Israel. Eventually, however, Ḥamās had to bow to Arab public opinion (including Palestinian public opinion) and come out in support of the Syrian uprising—the delay, however, was not lost on many Arab observers.

If Ḥamās took a hit, Ḥizbullāh took several. While Ḥamās eventually came out in support of the Syrian uprising, Ḥizbullāh came out vigorously in support of Assad's regime, decrying efforts by the rebels to pull it down. Many observers noted that while Ḥizbullāh demanded the Syrian rebels lay down their arms, they (Ḥizbullāh) refused to give up their own weapons in the context of Lebanon and the disarming of militias. Moreover, the continued good relations between Ḥamās and Ḥizbullāh leaders and the Iranian government (an Islamist regime in the region which supports the Assad government) have not gone unnoticed.

There should be some provisos here. Islamism is not a transnational monolithic movement. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has always opposed Assad, while Ḥamās was generally for him. The Libyan MB supported the Libyan uprising and NATO's intervention—although they had previously engaged with Seif al-Islam Qaddafi—while many MB chapters NATO involvement.

Ḥamās and Ḥizbullāh are good examples on the regional level, particularly with regard to Syria, of Islamist reputations gone awry. On the national level, there can be no better example than to look at the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who has seen its own public persona indelibly damaged over the past fifteen months.

When the uprising began in Cairo on 25 January 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership were very clear from the outset, for quite some time, that they were not behind it. Many attack them for this now, but in truth, it was the smart, strategic, and appropriate thing for the leadership to do—for the MB as well as for Egypt. Had the uprising been in any way labeled an Islamist movement, there would have been far more leeway for the Egyptian government to crush it, with a minimum of international condemnation. With the MB leadership staying out of it, they avoided this outcome—nevertheless, their youth, as individual Egyptians, did go into Tahrir Square, and without their participation, it is almost certain that the square would not have been overwhelmed on the 28th of January (the "Day of the Camels"). Eventually, as it is clear by now, the MB were very much in favour of the uprising—and benefited from it greatly.

In the weeks that followed the uprising, there was an opportunity for the MB and the other political forces that had supported the revolution to form a coalition aimed at forcing the military government under civilian control, removing former regime stalwarts from the state apparatus, and pursuing a real transition from the regime of Mubarak to a new Egyptian political order. The first step that the MB took in that regard was to assure the population and the international community that the MB was not interested in running a presidential candidate, and that it would run candidates in only 30% of seats from a newly formed political party that had a Christian as one of its vice-presidents.

That was the first step—and unfortunately, it seemed to be the last, or at least a rare effort, aimed at supporting the revolution over MB partisan interests (unless they coincided). Soon after the uprising succeeded in removing Mubarak, a referendum took place on certain constitutional amendments aimed at directing Egypt through its transition. It was a flawed document, which protected the interests of the military—thus the revolutionary forces urged for a no vote. Unfortunately, they gave very little in terms of a coherent alternative, and the MB, rather than stand with the revolutionary forces in demanding another alternative, decided to go for a "yes" vote.

As the weeks and the months continued, the reputation of the MB (among the intelligentsia—the populace at large had yet to change its mind about the MB), continued to be damaged. Going after 30% of the parliamentary seats gradually changed until the upper most limit was 50%—ostensibly, this was to prevent former regime stalwarts from gaining those seats, but had the MB been most concerned about that, there could have been other options, including supporting non-MB parties. This might seem too much to expect from any political force—the nature of politics is indeed partisan self-interest—but as a party which bore so much responsibility for Egypt due to its size and influence, particularly one that claimed a higher ethical standard than anyone else (religion), the MB invited itself to be held to a higher standard than most.

The MB's ethical compass did not seem to overcome its partisan interests in other areas as well. The group created a political party which all members were forced to join, or have the choice between being apolitical entirely or expelled. As a result, many of the best and brightest were compelled to leave the group. Many within the group had advocated that that the MB not engage in politics at all, leaving individual members to choose how they wanted to politically organise—but the group's leadership decided otherwise, deepening suspicions that the MB sought power.

The MB continued to pursue policies which further hurt its reputation, although not yet in the eyes of popular opinion. Gallup opinion polls showed that about half of Egyptians did not support the MB, with the remainder split between strong support (perhaps 10–15%) and conditional political support—that, however, meant that the MB received 48% of the seats in parliament. Once in parliament, the MB had the chance to make good on another commitment to the Egyptian people—to establish a constitutional assembly that would be thoroughly pluralistic and would write a constitution that would be for the good of all Egyptians and not simply the MB (although it must be said that the MB saw its own interests and those of Egypt as one and the same.) Instead, the MB and its allies pushed through a constitutional assembly that was overwhelmingly Islamist in nature. Though a court order eventually disbanded the assembly, the move caused additional damage to the MB's reputation.

Finally, there were the presidential elections of 2012—the first after Hosni Mubarak's removal from power. For months, the MB had insisted that it would not run a presidential candidate. But as the presidential competition approached, they ran not one, but two. The first was disqualified, with the second (who had been nominated as a backup plan) coming in first in the presidential elections held in May 2012. The MB justified its change of heart as a signal of its unwavering commitment to the revolution, and its belief that if the group did not run a candidate, the regime would return—but had this been the case, there were also other options. The most glaringly obvious of which was to back Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh—one of the most pro-revolutionary presidential candidates, who had been on the more liberal end of the spectrum within the MB, but who had been expelled when he decided to run against the MB leadership's wishes. Had he received the MB's endorsement, Egyptians would not have been left in the quandary of voting in the run-off elections in June 2012 for either a Mubarak regime stalwart (Ahmed Shafiq) or the organization which had proven itself to be so concerned with its own partisan interests (the MB and its candidate).

The situation on the ground in Egypt transformed the reputation of the MB in the context of the revolution. Prior to the uprising, many, including non-religious leftists and liberals, had viewed the MB as a partner against the regime, and part of a free, post-Mubarak Egypt. By the time the presidential elections took place in May and June 2012, its reputation across the political intelligentsia was undeniably damaged, and its poor performance in parliament had led to even public opinion dropping in support according to Gallup polls.

The founder of the MB, Hasan al-Banna, had a disciple who migrated from Egypt and started a new civil society group. He openly declared once that, as far as he was concerned, the death of al-Banna was the death of the MB—that anything beyond that point was no longer MB, and that what ensued was almost a perversion of his ideas.

One suspects that history will record that for many others, the Arab Awakening was the beginning of the death of Islamism.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a geo-strategic expert on the MENA region and Europe, with experience at Gallup, the Brookings Institution & Warwick University. www.hahellyer.com Twitter: @hahellyer

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