Steven Brooke, The University of Louisville

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Adaptation Strategies of Islamist Parties and Movements  workshop held at George Washington University January 27, 2017. POMEPS Studies 26 is a collection of the memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

Perhaps no actor touched by the uprisings in the Arab World saw their fortunes change as dramatically as did Islamist groups. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood plunged into electoral activism and were rewarded with significant political authority, including the head of state. But these promising initial gains have since yielded to a series of setbacks, as resurgent autocracy, jihadist violence, and state failure have forced the region’s Islamists to accommodate to uncomfortable and often unexpected realties. In the aftermath, these organizations have adopted a variety of strategies designed to both cope with past failures and open possibilities for future success. One key development – that cuts across issues of organization and ideology – is Islamist groups’ growing recognition of the need to establish some type of separation between partisan and socio-religious activism.

The question of where and how to draw the line between politics and other types of activism has been a fault line in Islamist groups for decades. But the Arab uprisings and their aftermath have brought these fissures – and their consequences – to the fore. After Egyptians witnessed an unprecedented crossover of the Brotherhood’s social and political activities in early 2013, certain members of the group in exile have noted the damage this did to the Brotherhood’s overall mission. Reflecting on that time (and potentially angling for reconciliation with Egypt’s new regime), one minister in Morsi’s government claimed that allowing the movement and the party to overlap was “the largest mistake that took place.” A prominent Freedom and Justice Party parliamentarian concurred, noting in May 2016 how “the whole group is (now) determined to keep the competitive partisan side away from the educational and reform side and activities.” A few days later, the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, the Ennahda party, attempted to preempt such concerns by formally adopting a split between partisan activism and social outreach at their party congress. Other Brotherhood branches in Jordan and Morocco currently attempt to maintain a similar divide, albeit under more restrictive political conditions than their compatriots in Tunisia.

Such a separation may be a rigorous organizational firewall, as in Tunisia or Jordan (the latter more in theory than practice), or it may emerge as a less-formal effort to dissuade members from straddling the divide. Yet as these questions play out inside Islamist movements, it is worth considering how they will engage questions of Islamists’ relationships with society, their ability to enforce the separation amidst the rough and tumble of politics, and the very identity of Islamist groups vis-à-vis other types of religious activism.

It is not clear if such proposed (or enacted) efforts truly reflect the careful considerations leaders with the assent of membership or are more the result of ad-hoc adaptation to facts on the ground. Leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood have long considered that the group’s efforts are indivisible (i.e. Islam is a comprehensive system and matters of religion, society, and state are inseparable). Mohammed Badie, for instance, the Brotherhood’s General Guide, told Brotherhood members in a weekly message that “We worship Allah by politics and da’wa together and don’t separate between them.” And even though Ennahda’s May 2016 decision to separate the wings of the organization was reported to have won the support of “strong majorities” from the membership, the same report notes how “many Ennahda leaders and supporters were initially skeptical of formalizing changes to the hizb-haraka (party-religious movement) relationship.”

If the separation is purely a response to immediate contextual factors rather than fundamentally reconsidering the precise relationship between politics and socio-religious activism, then it is an open question as to how durable the separation will be. For example, partisan activism and social reform may be aimed at the same endpoint, but they proceed along divergent paths at different speeds. Social reform takes place quietly, gradually, and usually in harmony with underlying principles. Politics, in contrast, requires an ability to cut deals with ideological opponents (and the flexibility to rationalize them), and a willingness to accept defeats, all performed in the public eye. To the extent that these can be separate it may be a boon to an organization, allowing people with different interests to engage in the types of activism that most interest them. But any organization engaging in both will likely – if not definitely – be forced to cope with the possibility that the inevitable failures of politics will color citizens’ views of the non-political as well. Reflecting on the 2011 to 2013 period, Amr Darrag, a former minister in Morsi’s government, argues that, “[t]he Brotherhood bore the mistakes in [the party’s] political tactics, despite the fact that the party benefited from the Brotherhood’s support.” Proactively and publicly separating the party from the movement – as Ennahda has done – may prove enough to prevent a similar fate from befalling that organization, but this remains an open question.

Darrag’s observations about the Morsi era hints at a second consideration – the extent to which these organizational changes can even be maintained in practice. In the case of the Tunisian Ennahda, a history of extensive repression meant that the linkages between politics and social activism were much less developed than in other countries. Indeed, there is much less of a social sector for Ennahda to even separate from, which assumedly made the bifurcation easier than it might be elsewhere. Critically, however, the new setup has not yet been subject to any electoral pressure, which will presumably come during the municipal elections tentatively scheduled for 2017.

And these contests will show the difficulty of maintaining the separation under the heat of electoral competition. While it is one thing to write a formal separation into an organization’s bylaws, it is a different thing altogether to maintain that posture amidst the tumult of a democratic transition. If one of Ennahda’s candidates is in a neck-and-neck race, will they resist the temptation to tap into social networks built around social service provision or religious activism to get out the vote? Will national leaders be willing to monitor for movement preachers stumping for political candidates in mosques and censure the guilty parties? Will the group’s own constituents and supporters suspect Ennahda is essentially conceding an electoral advantage to the benefit of their ideological opponents? Or will the movement activists be frustrated with what they see as extensive concessions by the political party (a relationship that occasionally surfaces in the Indonesian Prosperous Justice Party)? Even if the separation survives a single campaign, how well will it endure if, over time, it comes to be seen as a key handicap preventing Ennahda from making substantial political gains? And how will Ennahda effectively counter opponents’ claims – spurious or not – that they are leveraging their social networks for electoral gain? Indeed, given the suspicion with which many across the region now view the relationship between Islamists’ social and political activities, we might consider Ennahda’s formal organizational split – done publicly with the attendant coverage of the national and international press – as a type of public hand-tying meant to counter such inevitable accusations.

It is much simpler to separate electoral from other forms of activism if, as Nathan Brown puts it, “victory is not an option.” When electoral outcomes might be subject to the whim of an autocrat and those political offices open to an opposition are relatively toothless, it is an easy case to be made that an organization should keep politics at arm’s length from other facets of their activism. And, as Marie Vannetzel astutely remarks, Mubarak Egypt’s legal environment effectively forced the Brotherhood to promote the idea – at least in the popular imagination – that there existed a sturdy divide between their social activism and their political ambitions. In these conditions, she argues, “the impossibility of exhibiting the Brotherhood trademark [on their social endeavors] was transformed into an ostentatious refusal to derive self-interested benefits from virtuous actions.” But when this artificial restraint on the Brotherhood’s conduct effectively collapsed in 2011, the group struggled to keep the realms separated. And not only did the party’s political failures back-flush into other realms of activity (which was Darrag’s concern), the overlap caused Egyptians to doubt the motivations behind the group’s supposedly apolitical work in social or religious reform.

The lesson is that so long as the sweep of politics – winning elections, passing laws, governing effectively – serves as the measuring stick by which Islamists assess themselves, it will be quite difficult to seriously undertake the types of organizational reforms discussed here. This is particularly true in “founding elections,” when opportunities to establish critical institutions that shape the future trajectory of the country proliferate. Preventing activists from leveraging their considerable “non-political” resources effectively requires a party to act irrationally, to abnegate their self-interest and behave benevolently in realm of politics. As Marc Lynch argues in a recent report, “Self-limiting strategies, such as those pursued by Ennahda under the guidance of Rached Ghannouchi, typically require far greater concessions than might be dictated by the objective balance of power.” Not only does it remain to be seen how durable this restraint is, but it is also an open question if other Islamist movements, those without a powerful figure such as Ghannouchi at the helm, can exercise similar self-control.

That is why this divide ­– particularly in more democratic contexts – touches on foundational issues such as the place of politics and electoral activism inside Islamist groups. And here, the group’s extensive investment in politics raises a series of hurdles to change. Marc Lynch points out that “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been so deeply engaged in politics over the past fifteen years that the overlap between its activities has become central to the organization’s identity, structure, and practice.” And scholar of the Brotherhood Khalil al-Anani, for example, argues that “to envision a Brotherhood without political activity is a delusion.” Simply put, politics has been the movement’s measuring stick for decades. Changing such embedded norms and identities, including, assumedly, extensive changes in how the Brotherhood’s internal curriculum cultivates new members, is no easy matter.

Regional dynamics, and particularly the steadily fracturing cast of Islamic activist organizations, further problematize the idea of an easy separation. On the one hand, de-emphasizing the role of politics and elections to help maintain any separation between electoral and socio-religious activism might be an attractive step for Islamist groups. The region’s split between rigid autocracy and brutal violence has clearly sapped both the effectiveness and allure of electoral politics, and reassessing the importance of politics and elections may possibly just acknowledge what many already understand to be true already. On the other hand, this course of action threatens to undermine the very identity of Islamists. The center pole holding up the Islamists’ wide tent is their explicit focus on political engagement – it differentiates them from Salafi-jihadists on the right and various socially and religiously-minded reformist Salafis on the left. Explicitly divesting from political activism may end up diluting the very thing that renders the Muslim Brotherhood such a powerful sociopolitical actor and distinguishes it from a crowded field of opponents.

Sorting out the proper relationship between Islamists’ partisan and socio-religious activism involves complicated and intertwined issues, and there is no reason to expect a workable arrangement to occur immediately. This is doubly true in the Middle East’s current environment, where many of these organizations are struggling to survive – some quite literally – rather than delve into complex debates about foundational organizational and ideational matters. Yet despite these developments, the difficulties and ramifications of Islamists groups’ interest in more formally distinguishing between electoral and non-electoral forms of activism raise a series of intriguing questions for both researchers and Islamist groups themselves. Egypt’s Islamists clearly failed at keeping the realms separate during the country’s brief democratic interlude. But given the ways these discussions cut across how Islamists interact with society, the way they perceive their own identities, and their relationships with other forms of Islamic activism, continuing to examine the separation between social movement and political party will be important to consider as Islamist groups attempt to adjust to the post-Arab Spring realities.

Steven Brooke is an assistant professor of political science at The University of Louisville.

The Muslim Brotherhood Between Party and Movement