In Translation: The crisis of the political Islamists

Khalil El-Enani, an Egyptian scholar of Islamist movements, has long criticized these movements intellectual stasis and their authoritarian internal structures. Post-Arab Spring, as these movements reached power through elections, he argues the question is whether they are able to retain any ideological coherence as they become ruling parties. In the piece below, he argues that the chief threat to the Islamists comes from this rather than non-Islamist rivals.

In my view, one of the striking thing about the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt is the extent to which they were unprepared for power. This is both in the sense that they still seem lack the cadres (i.e. policy and government professionals able to run things) and that they have shown a surprising lack of vision when one has been expected to turn the country in a new direction. And they have also become much vaguer about the religious content of their discourse, in part because the Islamist field is divided on these issues, and in part because they have first sought to compromise on their ideology to anchor themselves in power. But does the “crisis of the Islamist political project” described below by El-Anani, or any “failure of political Islam” as Olivier Roy puts it, mean anything significant in their ability to rule? The previous regimes were ideologically void, but held on to power for many years. Failure of ideology does not mean failure of government or regime. So when I read about the crisis of Islamists, I do not think of an endpoint but a situation that may be with us for a long time, lingering and unresolved .

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The Crisis of the Islamists’ Political Project

Khalil El Anani, al-Hayat, October 17, 2012

According to the Islamists’ opponents, the Islamists’ arrival to power was neither pure chance nor a stroke of luck offered by the Arab Spring but rather a result of long decades of opposition to existing regimes, which provided them with legitimacy and organization that others lacked. The Islamists cannot be blamed for this as much as their opponents, who busied themselves – and continue to do so – with attacking the Islamists and attempting foil their project more than they busied themselves with building the organizational and social structures necessary to compete with the Islamists on the political and the popular level. However, contrary to what some think, the danger the Islamists – or more specifically the Islamist project – face does not come from the outside but rather from within the Islamists’ political and ideological project itself.

In other words, the dilemma faced by the Islamist project – regardless of its meaning and connotation – is not found in the attacks that its liberal and secular opponents have launched against it, despite its leaders’ repeated assertions to that effect. Rather, the dilemma springs from the intellectual and ideological environment of the Islamic project itself. This means that the crisis that the Islamist project currently faces, which will become worse over the next few months and years, is an internal crisis whose source lies in the nature of power itself and not in the opposition. This is a strange irony, as some may regard the Islamists’ rise to power as a victory for the Islamist project, even though in reality it may be the beginning of the end for the project and its principle slogans.

To clarify, it is possible to say that the Islamist project (by which we mean the dominant sayings and principle narratives upon which the Islamists’ intellectual and ideological discourse rests) grew up in the lap of opposition. This means that it is fundamentally a project of opposition and not a project of power. Therefore, by definition, the crisis faced by this project is the same crisis that all ideological projects face when they move suddenly from the opposition to power without prior warning. This is what happened to Nasserism, nationalism, and Baathism, which all lost their existential and moral legitimacy over time as they changed from being agents of the people and representatives of the opposition to ruling elites wielding dictatorial powers. These projects were not able to find the political and psychological balance between being representatives of popular conscience and being ruling authorities that seek to embody this conscience in policies to implement the promises they made before obtaining power.

Take for instance the Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power in a manner that some found surprising – even though that was not the case, for reasons too long to explain here. Overnight the Muslim Brotherhood moved from representing the most important opposition power to being the principal ruling power. However, in the midst of this radical transition, the Muslim Brotherhood neither changed its opposition discourse into a new discourse of power nor struck a psychological balance between the two. Therefore, one feels at times as if the Muslim Brotherhood has placed one foot in the ruling camp and the other – albeit nominally – in the opposition camp. When reviewing the Muslim Brotherhood’s confusing intellectual and ideological discourse, one recognizes that there is no longer anything that distinguishes this discourse from any other discourse of power.

On one hand, most of the classical sayings that formed the basis of the Muslim Brotherhood’s discourse have disappeared, especially those relating to the Islamic state, the enforcement of Islamic law and the preservation of identity, in favor of a discourse focused on daily life and free from any theology or religious content. Some see this as a positive development, even though to the naked eye it represents the Muslim Brotherhood ridding itself of the original content of its opposition discourse and gradually replacing it with a discourse of power. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood has found it difficult to find the internal balance between its rise to power, its mobilization process, and what was fundamentally suitable within an opposition movement, but is no longer suitable within a ruling party. From here, the Muslim Brotherhood has faced great difficulties in preserving the virtues of both opposition and power at the same time, as demonstrated by the confrontation that occurred between the Muslim Brotherhood and those demonstrating against President Morsi’s policies.

The issue is not so different within the Salafi bloc. The Salafi current, although not completely opposed to Mubarak’s regime, nonetheless paid a high price for the prevalent, official mania against Islamists. Overnight, this current moved from the political shadows into media and power spotlights without any intellectual or jurisprudential review of its governing sayings and it thus came to resemble a deformed political being. It neither reflects an original opposition movement nor is it able to rival the revolutionary movement in the expression of its demands and admissions. Moreover, the Salafi struggle for power revealed the Iran-style discourse and religious commitment that represent the mainstay of Salafi tactical discourse.

While Islamic law remains the cornerstone of this discourse, over time this demand will change under the pressures of reality and societal repulsion to become a part of the past. It appears that the issue of symbolic representation will become one of the challenges faced by the Islamic project. This issue has sparked many questions that still await decisive answers from the Islamists. For instance, from now on many will ask: Who represents the Islamists? Who has a right to speak in the name of the Islamist project? Is there one Islamic project or are there multiple Islamic projects? What are points of difference and overlap between these projects? Can these projects coexist or will they rival each other and come into conflict? The principal question also remains: What is the nature and goals of this project and what parts of them will remain after the Islamists reach power?

In general it could be said that the Islamist project in of itself may change into a mere mobilizational, political slogan rather than an expression of an intellectual and ideological vision reflecting an awareness held by those speaking in its name. This project existed for a long time – especially when the Islamists were in the opposition – as a romantic dream that flirted with the imaginations of its leadership and youth. However, reaching power has ended this dream and revealed many of the flaws inside of this project. (Just as the Renaissance Project proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood now appears to merely be a mobilizational plan devoid of any content or meaning.) The more power the Islamists acquired, the more the Islamist project lost its luster, the more its mobilizational capacity eroded and the more its symbolic capital regressed. Contrary to what many may think, arriving to power may be the final chapter of the project whose end may come at the hands of its own supporters. For, this is the nature of power, which is seductive but not merciful.

Perhaps it is too early to judge whether the Islamists’ project has succeeded or failed. But, in my opinion the challenge before them now is to create a new discourse of power free from authoritarianism and oppression in order to guarantee that their project endures, less it fail just as the other ideological projects that transitioned from opposition to power have failed.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,