Does Political Islam Have a Future?

Five years after the Arab Spring, hope for a nonviolent and Islam-inflected politics is narrower than ever.

The political space for nonviolent, Islam-inflected politics has become narrower and more treacherous in the last year. Squeezed by repression on one side and radical violence on the other, nonviolent political Islamists were increasingly silenced or eliminated in 2015. Moderate parties were sidelines in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and Morocco. In Syria, Libya, Yemen and the Palestinian Authority, their militant brethren marginalized and even attacked them. For many both inside and outside the Middle East, the growing reach of the Islamic State (ISIS) discredited even the idea of a peaceful version of political Islam in the twenty-first century.

There were two exceptions: In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured a solid parliamentary majority in November elections—a significant reversal in fortune, since elections just months earlier had swung sharply against the AKP. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated his authority, and may even try to change the constitution to further strengthen his executive powers. In Tunisia, the Ennahda Party joined the ruling coalition, after coming in second during elections in late 2014.

But ISIS and Al Qaeda stole the spotlight in the Islamist political debate. These groups and their franchises carried out attacks in virtually every Middle Eastern country last year, with bombings in Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey killing hundreds of people. ISIS also launched attacks in the West when Islamic State supporters killed more than 120 people in Paris, France, and fourteen in San Bernardino, California.

These trends bode ill for more moderate groups in 2016—and for the region’s security. Syria, Libya and Yemen are particularly vulnerable, despite new peace initiatives. Extremist militias that controlled territory in all three countries were not part of peace negotiations—and are unlikely to cooperate if those negotiations should succeed. Meanwhile, Egypt and Turkey became increasingly repressive against a broad array of opposition groups, justifying crackdowns as a response to Islamic extremism.

Political Parties

The marginalization of Islamist parties is a setback after the unprecedented political opportunities provided by the Arab Spring in 2011. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological grandfather of dozens of Islamist parties, won the presidency and the largest share of seats in parliament—to be ousted and declared a terrorist organization in 2013. By the end of 2015, Islamist parties across the region had lost elections, been banned or opted to boycott political systems increasingly skewed against them.

In Egypt, the Salafist Nour Party won only twelve seats in the controversial 2015 parliamentary elections—down from 121 seats in 2011. Algeria’s Movement of Society for Peace damaged its credibility by strengthening ties with the ruling National Liberation Front. Jordan’s Islamic Action Front was weakened by deep internal fractures. Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, though still the largest party in parliament, remained largely limited in their political influence.

After falling to second in the polls in 2014, Tunisia’s Ennahda party survived by joining a coalition government with Nidaa Tounes, a secular party that won the largest bloc in parliament. Turkey’s AKP was another anomaly. Opposition parties dealt it a sharp blow in June elections, but they failed to form a government and the AKP reclaimed its parliamentary majority in November snap elections. Along the way, however, Erdogan and the AKP, once viewed as the region’s model Islamist party, have increasingly curtailed press freedoms and silenced opposition. The Committee to Protect Journalists has branded Turkey “Europe and Central Asia’s leading jailer of journalists,” while a security reform passed in March significantly expanded police powers and the role of government-appointed regional governors in the law-enforcement process, with critics accusing the measure of “treating popular protests as potential acts of terrorism” and turning Turkey’s gendarmerie into an “armed branch of the AKP.”