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Ennahda party supporters held a demonstration in Tunisia, Tunis Tunisia, 27 February 2021

Political parties are the missing link between protest street movements and lasting political reform in the Arab world. Protest can trigger change, but political reform then needs to be routinized through the normal political process and political parties are crucial to making this happen. 

So far, political parties are not contributing to the process of change started by protests. In recent years, they have not even contributed to stability or to the emergence of strong though non-democratic states, as they did for example in Iraq and Syria in the past. Rather, they have become non-players, vehicles for advancing political ambitions of their leaders rather than advocating policies to address problems. The scant attention awarded to political parties in discussions of transitions in Arab countries is thus understandable. It is also problematic, because the status of these parties presents major obstacles to lasting change.

For change to take place, popular discontent and highly principled, yet vague, demands need to be translated into concrete policies.

Protest movements, if successful, can force reluctant governments to embark on a process of reform. Although, ten years after first wave of uprisings in 2011, there can be no doubt that authoritarian regimes are extraordinarily resilient in maintaining their grip on power. For change to take place, popular discontent and highly principled, yet vague, demands need to be translated into concrete policies—what reforms would address the protester’s slogans for dignity, for example? Such translation ultimately has to come from political organizations designed to participate in the political system and to influence decision-making, in other words from political parties. In theory, protest movements could transform themselves into political parties, but this usually does not happen, perhaps because the skills needed to bring people in the streets are different from those needed to design and implement policies. We have seen during the Arab uprisings that activists tend to reject structured organization, formal leadership, and the banality of governing. I am not arguing that protest movements will never be able to give rise to political parties, but this has not happened so far in the region.

It is thus important to try to get a better understanding of the strength and weaknesses of political parties that exist in Arab countries. This commentary is an introduction to a series of short case studies of political parties in various Arab countries.

Despite their common authoritarianism, most Arab countries have some of the formal trappings of democracy. Almost all, including half of those with monarchical regimes, have elected parliaments and a plethora of political parties contesting elections. The days of the single party system, as they existed for example in Egypt, Iraq and Syria, are gone, but parties are still subject to limitations. In Syria, they have to conform to the fundamental principles of the Ba’ath party. In Egypt, parties with a religious ideology were banned before the 2011 uprising, and then legalized for two years, even winning over 70 percent of parliamentary seats as well as the presidency. However, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party were again banned in 2013 and only Islamist parties of marginal importance are now tolerated. In many other countries, parties are associated with an ethnic or a religious group—there are Kurdish parties in Iraq and Shia and Sunni parties in Kuwait, for example. As in most parts of the world, in plural societies people tend to vote their identities.

Political parties in the Arab world fall in distinct categories, with the most important distinctions being between government and non-government parties as well as between Islamist and secular parties. (The term “secular” is controversial and will be discussed later). These distinctions, which are not mutually exclusive, are important not as an exercise in taxonomy but in order to understand the dynamics of political parties and the role they could or could not play in a given reform process.

Government and non-government parties

Government parties are those formed from the top to support an aspiring leader or a regime in power. The Ba’ath parties of Syria and Iraq, and Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union in Egypt, fell in this category. They were all single parties at the outset, with all other political organizations banned. Membership was not compulsory, but it was a de facto condition for obtaining and keeping government jobs. The post-Saddam Hussein de-ba’athification program in Iraq caused extreme controversy and inflicted a lot of harm on many by failing to differentiate between committed leaders and members like teachers or lower-level civil servants who had joined the party only to safeguard their jobs.

Authoritarian regimes in the Arab region have become more subtle and more adept at building democratic facades, allowing the formation of other parties while making sure they cannot possibly win an election or otherwise become a threat.

This type of government-aligned single party is disappearing. Authoritarian regimes in the Arab region have become more subtle and more adept at building democratic facades, allowing the formation of other parties while making sure they cannot possibly win an election or otherwise become a threat. The National Democratic Party of Egypt, which ruled until the 2011 uprising, was formed in 1978, when President Anwar Sadat decided the country needed three parties, a centrist one and one each on the right and on the left. Unsurprisingly, he reserved the centrist position for the National Democratic Party, the government’s own party, which as expected came to dominate the parliament. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad decreed the introduction of a multi-party system in 2011, but in practice nothing changed.

Different types of government parties are found in Morocco, where many organizations have always been closely aligned with the king—not because they are forced to do so but because they find it advantageous. Others, such as the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP) started as opposition parties but were co-opted later. In 1998, the USFP won the plurality of the vote in the parliamentary elections and the king decided to allow its secretary-general to form the cabinet. It was a brilliant move: officials of the USFP now speak openly of belonging to a government party, although their control of the cabinet was short-lived. Another type of government party is the new, nominally independent Party for Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which was founded in 2008 by Fouad al Himma, a close friend of the king. Immediately, a number of smaller parties merged into the PAM hoping to benefit from its close proximity to the palace. As a result, the PAM gained considerable representation in the parliament before it ever participated in an election. Varieties of government parties exist in all countries.

Elsewhere, the problem is not the absence of political parties, but the excessive number that makes most of them irrelevant except as a conduit for the personal ambition of their founders.

Non-government parties occupy an ambiguous position in many countries. Some are genuine opposition parties, but others court the government in order to be allowed to gain a small presence in the parliament. Non-government parties number in the dozens, even the hundreds in some cases. Obtaining a precise count is a difficult and ultimately futile exercise, because most of these organizations come and go, merging with others, changing names, or simply disappearing. There are no political parties in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Elsewhere, the problem is not the absence of political parties, but the excessive number that makes most of them irrelevant except as a conduit for the personal ambition of their founders.

Over a hundred political parties participated in the Tunisian elections of 2012—most of them winning no or at best one seat. In a long discussion with this writer, a Tunisian analyst provided a perceptive if not a scathing analysis of the futility of most of these organizations, before announcing that he was about to launch his own party because it was the only way for him to enter politics. In Egypt, where it is given that allies of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will control the parliament, a 2021 list of parties includes more than 100 entries, including over a dozen with an Islamist platform (to be discussed further). Kuwait, which only elects 50 members of parliament, with 15 more appointed, has some ten political organizations. There are more than 30 political parties in Jordan, but few people have even heard of most of them.

Most parties have very few if any members and most do not work particularly hard at building larger constituencies—my conversations with some of the leaders suggested that they even found the very idea of constituency building somewhat demeaning and certainly unworthy of their time. The notable exception are the Islamist parties, for whom building the organization is a paramount concern. This helps explain their successes and the fear they inspire in other political organizations. In the last months of the Morsi regime in Egypt in 2013, many Egyptians started denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood as an “organized minority” as if organizing was a sin.

For many non-government parties, survival depends on the relationship with the government rather than on the strength of their support. Egypt is the best example. During the three decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, some non-government parties in Egypt managed to establish a precarious toehold in the parliament by negotiating with the National Democratic Party how many seats they would be allowed to win. The NDP (and the government) saw it as beneficial to the country’s image to allow a small opposition in parliament. Even Muslim Brothers, members of an illegal political organization with thousands of followers in jail, had a presence in parliament by running candidates as independents or under the umbrella of another party, both with the government’s tacit approval.

Opposition parties then can maintain sustained pressure on the government to formulate and enact reform are thus crucial to change.

The weakness and the ambiguous nature of non-government parties is a major obstacle to reform. Reform can be driven from the top by a strongly motivated regime that has come to see the status quo as untenable, but this is rare. Above all, it is not occurring in the Arab world at present. Opposition parties then can maintain sustained pressure on the government to formulate and enact reform are thus crucial to change. The weakness of real opposition parties deprives Arab countries of a crucial tool for change.

Islamist and Secular Parties

Equally consequential in the Arab world is the distinction between Islamist and non-Islamist political parties, because it drives a wedge in the body politic, making the formation of strong alliances very difficult if not impossible and driving non-Islamic parties to support the incumbent government for fear of the Islamists.

The controversy surrounding whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be defined a terrorist organization and banned as such has created a lot of confusion about the presence of Islamist parties in Arab politics, obfuscating the fact that legal Islamic parties operate openly in most Arab countries—to be sure, illegal radical organizations also exist everywhere. In a few cases, the distinction may be blurred—is Hezbollah in Lebanon a political party, an armed group, or is it a terrorist organization? In most cases, however, the distinction is clear.

But Islamist parties, which typically invest heavily in organizing and building constituencies, are more likely to be seen as a challenge.

Fifteen of the countries that allow political parties, including Egypt, have at least one and in many cases several legal Islamist parties, which participate in elections and in some cases even hold, or have held, cabinet posts. Despite all the rhetoric about Islamist parties being a threat to democracy, they are usually allowed to exist unless they are a seen as a threat to the incumbent regime.  Secular parties or candidates are treated the same way.  In Egypt, former army Chief of Staff General Sami Anan was arrested and imprisoned for two years in 2017 when he tried to run in the presidential election. Officially, his offense was failing to ask the permission of the military to run, although he had already retired from it; in reality, the problem was that he had name recognition and a good reputation. But Islamist parties, which typically invest heavily in organizing and building constituencies, are more likely to be seen as a challenge.

Morocco is the only country where the political role of Islamists is no longer controversial. The Moroccan Party for Justice and Development recognizes the authority of the king in political and religious affairs and has acted strictly in accordance with the law since its inception. Many find its Islamist orientation objectionable-and its capacity to attract votes even more so, but the king accepts the legality of the party and has named its secretary-general prime minister. The PJD officials declare that they are committed to promoting reform without promoting a confrontation with the king and certainly have succeeded in avoiding confrontation. It remains to be seen whether they can also promote reform effectively and avoid co-optation. In Tunisia, Ennahda has also been central to the transition process that started in 2011, but the party remains more controversial, although it is accepted as a legitimate political actor.

The problem of secular parties in most Arab states is less due to government repression, although they always complain about it, than their weak identities and poor organization. Part of the identity problem of secular parties is that they do not know how they want to identify themselves. When this writer and a colleague published a study discussing, among others, secular parties in Egypt, they were greeted by a chorus of protest by officials and members complaining about the use of the word “secular”. Such a word, they protested, implied they rejected Islam, but this was not the case. The appellation “non-Islamic parties” drew equally vehement protest as implying lack of piety. Still, I use the term secular for lack of a better alternative.

Only in Tunisia, which developed a tradition of secularism under its first president Habib Bourguiba, is the term secular non-controversial, although the identity of most secular parties remains murky. Ten years after the uprising, Islamist Ennahda remains the only party with a degree of unity, although factions exist even in Ennahda. Nida Tounes, the party launched by Bourguiba-era politician Beji Caid Essebsi, mounted a strong fight in the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections by assembling a motley alliance of Ennahda opponents. But it had no real identity other that the opposition to Ennahda and it quickly splintered after the elections and within a few years it stopped being a factor in the politics of the country.

More dangerously, secular parties can be so fearful of the superior organization and better vote-getting ability of the Islamists to reject free elections and side with authoritarian regimes.

The division between Islamist and secular parties creates a dynamic in most Arab countries that makes it more difficult for political parties to become vehicles for reform. It prevents the formation of alliances and even cooperation on specific issues. More dangerously, secular parties can be so fearful of the superior organization and better vote-getting ability of the Islamists to reject free elections and side with authoritarian regimes.

From Protest to Democracy

The population of Arab countries has made it amply clear for well over a decade that it is deeply dissatisfied with the top-down political systems controlled by ruling families or by authoritarian leaders, which are often aligned with the military. Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, and in a second wave Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon, have all been shaken by massive protests that led, variously, to the overthrow of incumbent regimes, armed conflict, the virtual collapse of the state and an increase in foreign influences. The oil rich Gulf countries—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar—have managed to escape the turmoil with the help of generous subsidies to their populations. So has Oman. Yet, no Arab regime today is confident that their population will remain docile, as an overconfident Egyptian politician described his compatriots on the eve of the 2011 uprising.

The demands of the Arab street, while not specific, centered on the idea that citizens are entitled to a voice in governance—democracy in a broad sense. This is consistent with the results of innumerable surveys of Arab public opinion—for example those of the Arab Barometer and of the Arab Human Development Reports published by UNDP beginning in 2002. In all such surveys, respondents favor democracy over any other political system.

Even in Tunisia, the country considered to have made the most progress toward democracy, political discontent remains high. 

But the demands have not been translated into reality, certainly not according to the universally disappointed participants. Even in Tunisia, the country considered to have made the most progress toward democracy, political discontent remains high. There are many reasons for this failure, including the resistance and ruthlessness of entrenched regimes and the meddling of foreign powers. But a major cause of failure has also been the weakness of political organizations, capable of making popular demands part of the regular political process and thus of pushing for the enactment of political reform. As I have argued, in entrenched authoritarian systems protest is indispensable to trigger a process of change, but the enactment of reform is not done in the street by the crowds.

The major missing link in this process is the political parties. In a series of case studies that will follow this introduction, we will seek to clarify the characteristics and problem of the political parties in each of a number of Arab countries and their probable impact on political reforms.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

Marina Ottaway

Marina Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Former Senior Research Associate and Head of the Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
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