The evolution of Islamism since the Arab uprisings

By Quinn Mecham, Brigham Young University

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Uprisings Explained” workshop, October 2-3, 2014 and was published on The Monkey Cage, October 24, 2014.

The Arab uprisings of 2010-2011 provided a major shock that led to the rapid evolution of Islamism in the Arab world. While it was clear at the outset that the shock to Islamist movements would be large, how Islamist movements would internalize that shock and the direction in which they would evolve were highly contingent on the evolution of the Arab political systems. Since the initial uprisings, Islamist movements have evolved dramatically due to a several key trends that have defined and redefined their experience in the new Arab political (dis)order. These trends must be understood in the context of the opportunities Islamist movements faced in initial uprising period.

Although most Islamist movements, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, were initially slow to lead popular mobilization against autocratic Arab regimes, they recognized that they could benefit from changes in the post-uprisings political landscape. As it became apparent in many Arab countries that new elections could translate popular support for Islamist movements into political power, many Islamist groups supported the electoral process and launched aggressive campaigns to define society’s needs and capture votes.

These visions, championed by diverse Islamist groups such as Ennahda in Tunisia, Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups in Egypt, Islah in Yemen and the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco, as well as Islamist groups in Libya, Jordan and Kuwait, saw the 2011-12 period as a potential renaissance for Islamist participation in governance. They clumsily entered into political competition with other actors who also sought to redefine the emerging political order. In a large number of countries experiencing political turmoil (Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen and Kuwait) Islamist groups found new levels of political prominence. Importantly, however, they were actively repressed by the state in Syria, and often had only limited access to key domains of state power (in Libya, Egypt and the monarchies).

Since their initial experience with mass mobilization and the political openings in 2011-12, four main trends have affected Islamist movements in the Arab world that have dramatically shifted their perceived political opportunities. These trends have led to the rapid evolution and devolution of Islamist groups, often in deeply defining ways that will leave a long-term organizational legacy for Islamist groups far into the future. I discuss each of these trends in turn. Read more on The Monkey Cage.

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