Rethinking Repression and Islamist Behavior After the 2011 Uprisings

By Elizabeth R. Nugent, Princeton University

*This memo was prepared for the “Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamist Politics” workshop, January 29, 2016.

Prior to 2011, scholars had paid significant academic attention to developments related to the ideology and behavior of Islamist[1] elite actors. Much of this work focused on Islamist behavior under authoritarian regimes, but a slight extension of this literature provided predictions for what would happen if Islamists ever fully came to power in future freer and fairer elections. The phrase “one man, one vote, one time” succinctly articulated the assumption that all Islamist actors would behave undemocratically after winning first elections, due to a genuine or perceived lack of credible democratic commitments based on longstanding assumptions about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. A large body of work suggested that elite Islamist ideology and behavior was influenced by political inclusion, in combination with the ability to ideologically justify political participation to constituents. A number of different versions of the Islamist inclusion-moderation argument suggested that those actors with longer experiences of political participation might behave more inclusively.

Actual observed behavior in Egypt and Tunisia didn’t seem to match up with the predictions of these theories. These were two cases where Islamist parties won similarly significant pluralities in the countries’ first post-uprising elections, and thus were charged with leading government formation and constitution drafting processes. In Tunisia, Ennahda had been excluded from formal political processes since a wave of state repression ending in 1992 left the group outlawed, divided, and largely incapacitated. Yet the party worked in partnership to form a Troika government, dividing the three highest positions of state with the leadership from the center-left secular Congress for the Republic and social democratic Ettakatol parties. This first term was not devoid of conflict: the Ennahda-led government stepped down after two years amid paralyzing protests over its performance in office and the lack of progress on drafting a constitution. However, after the peak in this crisis, the party remained actively involved in negotiations over the formation of a coalition government, continued to participate in debates over the future nature of the second Tunisian republic, and helped to draft the constitution that was finally passed in January 2014, the final version of which included compromises from both secular and Islamist parties. The party’s behavior, its public statements, and political program indicated a more inclusive worldview open to opposing viewpoints.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the first legally recognized party of an organization that had regularly contested elections since 1984, displayed a more exclusive worldview and related behaviors. The FJP’s brief tenure was marked by infighting; secular and leftist opponents characterized the party as dominating, dictatorial, and uncompromising while similarly demonstrating an inability to negotiate or cooperate with the ruling party. After a year that saw public and legal challenges to the multiple Constituent Assembly elected by the FJP-dominated parliament from opposition leadership as unrepresentative and non-inclusive, and decrees issued by Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi to remove his actions from judicial oversight, the Brotherhood used its plurality to pass a constitution despite the boycott of the Assembly by significant members of the leftist opposition. Though technically within legal requirements, this was bad publicity for an already distrusted organization. The tension between the two polarized camps peaked during the summer of 2013, when the Egyptian military’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) stepped in to remove Morsi from the presidency one year into his term following massive opposition-supported protests against him.

Much of these diverging outcomes were driven by differences in Islamist behavior. This is not to say that there were not other important extenuating circumstances that contributed to the course of political developments, [2] but to call attention to what elite political actors themselves contributed to them in line with long-standing political science theories about the importance of elite actors and their behavior during moments of transition. In doing so, scholars must rethink and re-theorize the development of Islamist worldview and related behavior, including what experiences influence this, how it happens, and the long-term effects. Specifically, I suggest that scholars reconsider the effects of repression and reconsider groups’ experiences of it. Typically, repression of political opposition is a defining part of authoritarian regimes and their survival, the tool through which these regimes control institutions and maintain power, and a behavior towards which opposition actors, Islamists included, strategically respond.[3] Yet we know that the effects of experienced repression – a term that means more than exclusion from politics, sometimes even accompanies formal inclusion, and involves physical detainment, torture, harassment, and exile – to be physical, emotional, and psychological. However, we have not systematically studied the effects of these experiences on political actors’ ideology and behavior.

Experiences of Repression and Collective Memory Formation

In order to formalize a theory of repression, I suggest that we view experiences of it through the lens of psychological and sociological theories of collective memory. Collective memory is defined as shared individual memories that bear on people’s identities. The formation of collective memory is described in the literature as a transmission of meaning and identities from the historical past of a group, a process through which individuals converge on memories, characteristics, and values shared by an in-group, portrayed as positive in contrast to a negative out-group. Though this literature is extremely vast and varied, I highlight here a number of points central to rethinking the effects of repression. Pain and trauma are featured centrally as shared a group experience that enables – and indeed, better facilitates – collective memory formation. Traumatic events are found to be most influential because they are more effective than regular shared experiences at creating and increasing the salience of shared identities. This, in turn, facilitates increased cohesion and behavioral cooperation among group members, as evidenced by numerous observational and experimental studies.[4] Most importantly for the question at hand, collective memory formed as a result of traumatic experiences also has important political behavioral impacts.[5] Memories of past collective violence imbues present conflict, even if non-violent, with aggressive forms of in-group favoritism, a duty of retaliation, generalized hatred, and makes the current situation appear to be a repetition of previous violent conflicts. Collectively held memories of past conflicts can preclude political negotiations and compromises by creating fear and mistrust in addition to playing a cognitive-perceptual role in shaping parties’ perception of others’ interest, threat, and other intentions.

This literature provides important insights for understanding elite Islamist behavior. Throughout the twentieth century, Islamist actors — even those permitted to participate in the pseudo-democratic spaces of the Middle East — overwhelmingly faced state repression as regimes worked to control opposition, during both periods of consolidation as well as liberalization. In some cases, histories of Islamist actors highlight pivotal repressive experiences as important moments leading to increased cooperation, while in others, repression leads to a more closed worldview and behavioral retrenchment. By drawing from theories of collective memory formation, we might understand why this occurs. Though state repression of Islamists is quite ubiquitous, the nature of this repression – meaning, whether it targeted Islamists exclusively or rounded them up within a larger repressive framework – appears varied when considered within specific political, historical, and temporal contexts. If Islamists perceive themselves to be unfairly targeted, either in terms of pure numbers or in facing harsher tactics, the repressive experience should lead to within-group collective memory formation, in a manner that hardens worldviews and diminishes the group’s propensity for cooperative behaviors. If Islamists perceive themselves to be part of a larger group of opposition activists due to more widespread regime repression and prisoner holding patterns, across-group collective memory formation should occur, working to moderate closed worldviews and increase cooperation between Islamists and other repressed groups.

Considering past repression of Islamists within a larger repressive context helps to explain worldviews and behavior in 2011. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was systematically, repeatedly, and overwhelming targeted for mobilization for which it both was and was not responsible by the Mubarak regime as well as its predecessors, facilitating with-in group collective memory formation. Meanwhile in Tunisia, successive authoritarian regimes cycled through repression of Islamist and secular (whether leftist, communist, or union) opposition, sometimes creating overlapping populations of opposition in prison and in exile, ultimately preventing with-in group and promoting across group collective memory formation. Comparing these repressive histories within a collective memory framework helps to explain what and how these experiences contributed to the formation of significantly different collective memories and resulting worldviews and behaviors. In both cases, repressed political actors have a level of awareness about their pasts; after 2011, previous repression, remembered in different ways, is offered as an important component of explaining their present.

In Egypt, major repressive campaigns against the Muslim Brotherhood preceded certain structural and ideological conservative turns for the group, in addition to the hardening of an older generation, the members of which bore the brunt of severe state repression. Periods of increased cooperation between the Brotherhood and other opposition resulted from less polarization during the 1980s, when the Mubarak regime largely left the Brotherhood alone. Evidence of the cumulative effect of targeted repression emerged after 2011, not only in the observed Brotherhood behaviors but also in the self-conscious way Egyptian elites explained them. Statements by individual members of the Brotherhood insinuated that some portion of the group felt it deserved to govern, perhaps even exclusively, as the result of its suffering, while opponents cited excessive repression as the reason behind its dictatorial behavior.

In contrast, my ongoing research demonstrates that repression of Ennahda led to a more open worldview for the group. While the group was certainly targeted by the Ben Ali regime between 1989 and 1992, remaining formally banned through 2011 and with many of its leaders in prison and exile through the mid-2000s, it perceived this to be within a larger context of widespread regime repression. Members of the group remember their repressive experiences as being shared with other opposition groups and leaders, as a result of being targeted together in various roundups, repressed at similar levels and in similar ways, and held or forced into overlapping repressive prison and exile spaces. This, in turn, fostered increased communication, an increased sense of camaraderie, and increased cooperation both before (most notably, the 2005 October 18 Collectif) as well as after the revolution. Tunisian politicians talk differently than Egyptians do about their repressive experiences, referencing them not only as difficult experiences but also as times for personal and political growth, and as experiences that were shared across groups, in turn creating a higher level of cohesion among these groups in the pre-2011 opposition.

Ongoing Repression and Future Developments

While the collective memory mechanism is important for understanding Islamist behavior to date, it also has important implications for the long-term effects of ongoing repression in Egypt. Since the July 3rd coup, the Sisi regime has utilized repression widely, arresting 41,000 individuals between July 2013 and December 2014. Though journalists and leftist activists often receive the most attention in international circles, the regime has overwhelming targeted the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters since the military removed president Mohamed Morsi in a coup. His removal ushered in a new wave of repression against the group, beginning with the August 2013 deaths of 817 people when the police forcibly removed peaceful protesters in support of Morsi. Roughly 30,000 of those arrested are estimated to be Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters. The targeted nature of these repressive tactics does not go unnoticeable; the Brotherhood’s already forming collective memory of the past two years links this period to the ordeal (mihna) of 1954 to 1970, an experience which formed the basis of the group’s victim mentality, hardened the worldview of an older generation, and furthered the development of its undemocratic, closed structure and inability to cooperate with other organizations. Studies of the societal impacts of social memory demonstrate that the effects of collective memory can be detected up to two- and three-generations later. If this is true, the targeted actions of the Egyptian regimes may have hardened the worldviews and polarized the behaviors of Brotherhood members for the foreseeable future.

As Islamist behavior continues to evolve through the new opportunities and challenges presented by ongoing political development, we must continue to question our past analyses and the assumptions on which they rested. Introducing the study of collective memory is one way to reconsider previous work and predictions, one that departs from the rational actor framework to suggest a more realistic human experience of repressive politics. Further inquiry requires further comparison, including thinking about how collective memory does or does not explain Islamist behavior in other contexts such as the region’s monarchies which have witnessed controlled rather than sudden liberalization, how long collective memory might influence political behavior, and which part of collective memory – for example, the actual experience of repression, group narratives created about repression, forced interaction and communication, or the prevention of in-group collective memory formation – is doing the work in creating its political effects. The effects of repression on long-term mobilizational abilities might also be further theorized; the Brotherhood famously developed networks of extensive social service provision, some of which were utilized politically to mobilize supporters after 2011, while Ennahda was unable to cultivate any such large scale network as the result of the repression the group experienced. In any event and in any form, the long-term effects of the lived experiences of repression should remain a central topic of study as we make sense of the current period in the Middle East.

Elizabeth R. Nugent is a PhD candidate in the politics department at Princeton University.

[1] As Schwedler notes, the term ‘Islamist’ can encompass a range of political actors united only in their commitment to the application of Islamic teachings, in some form, to achieve social, political, and economic reform and which may not be similar in the form of political engagement through which they advocate this approach. Here, I use this term to refer to actors who are committed to the application of Islamic teachings and whose engagement takes the form of non-violent political contestation, including elections if/when available.

[2] An obvious difference is the existence of a strong and politicized military in Egypt, though arguably the SCAF would have had a hard time publicly justifying the coup without the defection of secular and leftist players from the democratic process.

[3] See, for example, Albrecht 2006, Howard and Roessler 2006, Lust 2005, Schwedler and Clark 2006.

[4] See Coman 2015 for a succinct overview of these studies.

[5] Though much of this literature focuses on situations following civil war, when both sides are guilty of violence and must be reconciled to end a conflict, the findings it produces appear to be applicable any situation that “serves as a foundational event for narratives of identity”, a category within would fall the situation of a state perpetuating collective violence against its citizens.


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