The Middle East: They’ve Arrived

By Robin Wright

The Islamists are not only coming. In several countries, they’ve already arrived. Others are primed to take prominent roles down the road. Altogether, Islamist movements are today the most dynamic political force across the Arab world—and they may well be for the next decade or longer.

Their rise to power happened quite abruptly. Within a single year, a rippling wave of uprisings opened political space for Muslim movements that had struggled for decades—in one case, almost a century—just to get in the door. Many of their leaders had spent their careers simply trying to stay out of jail.

But by 2012, more than fifty Islamist parties or movements had mobilized tens of millions of supporters in a dozen Arab countries. They won the right to form governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Others looked set to do well in Yemen and Libya—and potentially in Syria too. Those six countries alone account for more than half of the Arab world’s 300 million people.

None of the Islamists were ready to rule, however. Most were as surprised as the ruling autocrats at the speed and breadth of the uprisings. The Islamists joined in initially to avoid being excluded or marginalized. They have been scrambling ever since to develop practical plans to govern. None had specific blueprints.

“It’s been an extreme crash course for us,” Muslim Brotherhood foreign policy adviser Essam al Haddad told The Wall Street Journal a month after Egypt’s 2012 parliamentary election. “Remember, for 60 years we were working underground and now we’ve come out into the light and are staring directly into the sun. We’re all blinking and rubbing our eyes, like the Chilean miners. To adapt to this takes time, and we don’t have time.”

As Islamist parties prove their popularity at the polls, they are becoming both more assertive and more ambitious. Many exhibit a heady arrogance, assuming a hard-earned right to shape the new order. Their rise to power is, in turn, unsettling for both secular groups at home and an outside world that still associates Islamism of any shade with extremism. The tectonic political shake-up will certainly make the future all the more unpredictable.

Yet democratic politics and piety are not necessarily contradictions. Many Islamists have evolved significantly from their early days. In the 1970s and 1980s, the code word to describe them all was fundamentalist. Some still fit that label, if in slightly modified forms. But Islamism is not always extremism. In the early twenty-first century, Islamism also has many shades. Several movements today are carving out new niches in diverse forms of civic Islam. The lexicon is shifting as politics evolve.

As of 2012, the growing array of Islamist political parties constitute a whole new bloc—separate from the purely militant movements. The distinctions are often nuanced but pivotal in understanding Islamism in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The groups today share at least four common denominators.

First, most political parties do not now embrace theocratic rule, even as they push strong Islamic agendas or values. None are moderate in any Western sense, although a few are progressive in an Islamist context.

For most parties, there are no political templates. Iran’s Shiite Islamic republic is not a model, nor is the Sunni religious monarchy of Saudi Arabia—even for groups that have taken aid or inspiration from either. And whatever the rhetoric, re-creating the caliphate or restoring the purity of life from the Prophet Mohammed’s time in the seventh century is not what they are really after.

Turkey and Malaysia are more attractive as models to emulate, although partly for their economic prowess and international ties. Despite its ultraconservative Salafi values, Egypt’s Nour Party cited Brazil as a model and praised President Luiz Lula da Silva, a socialist, specifically for making Brazil one of the world’s top ten economies. “We want to copy the Brazilian experiment here,” said Nour spokesman Nader Bakkar. “We want to push small and medium-size enterprises too.”

Islamist parties have instead begun—with the emphasis on begun—to adapt to twenty-first-century realities, even if sometimes naively or clumsily. Many are struggling to figure out how to create jobs and pick up the garbage with the same fervor that they once simplistically preached “Islam is the solution” to virtually any issue.

Second, most of the fifty parties now engaged in politics have renounced terrorist tactics. Sunni Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon—both having competed in democratic elections endorsed by the international community—are critical exceptions. But virtually all Islamist parties condemn the political absolutism of al Qaeda franchises, which Islamists recognize have discredited their faith and made life more difficult for the faithful. Indeed, militants have murdered far more Muslims than Westerners.

Many parties still use scathing language about Israel that is unacceptable to the international community. Most support the Palestinians in one or more forms of “resistance” against Israel. But most leaders and followers also oppose another war with Israel or terrorist tactics against members of any faith. After Egypt’s 2012 election, the two winning Islamist parties pledged to maintain all of Cairo’s international treaties. The decision was a stark contrast to the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Islamic militants after he signed the first peace treaty with Israel.

Third, political Islam is today defined by an increasingly wide spectrum. And no one vision dominates. Indeed, the Islamists’ diversity—when the strictly observant believe in only one true path to God—is striking. Goals vary widely. Indeed, the Islamists rarely speak with one voice even within movements.

Some parties, notably in Egypt, are actually rivals. Together, two Islamic parties won some 70 percent of seats in parliament in 2012—and then began to snipe at each other. Conservative Muslim Brotherhood officials described their Salafi rivals as inexperienced and extreme, while members of the ultraconservative Salafi Party said that the Brothers had compromised their Islamic principles.

Islamist parties have even demonstrated willingness to work with secular and centrist parties, some as partners. After winning a plurality with 41 percent of the popular vote, Tunisia’s Ennahda party opted to form a new government with two secular parties. In one of the oddest alliances, Hezbollah formed a coalition with a right-wing Christian party in 2006 that still existed in Lebanon six years later. Whether to widen their power base or ease suspicions, some Islamist parties have demonstrated that they are not going to do what has been done unto them—at least for now.

Fourth and finally, Islamist groups are under pressure to give priority to reality over religion in the early twenty-first century. The same demographics that contributed to street protests against geriatric autocrats—over 60 percent of the Arab world’s 300 million people are under the age of thirty—are also fueling internal challenges to geriatric Islamist leaders.

The younger generation often does not buy into intolerant, inflexible, or impractical positions. In some cases, as in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, key players have split. Islamist parties face further fractures if they don’t address the challenges of daily existence.

Dire economic realities have also forced a sobering, if sometimes reluctant, pragmatism. As Egypt’s transition began in 2011, a Gallup poll found that 54 percent of Egyptians listed jobs and economic development as their top priorities. Fewer than 1 percent of Egyptians named implementing Islamic law as their top priority. The results were similar regardless of party affiliation.

A month after winning more than 45 percent of seats in parliament, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood approved in principle a proposal to borrow $3.2 billion U.S. from the International Monetary Fund. The decision was a flip-flop for the Brotherhood after years of criticizing the West and distancing itself from Western institutions. The decision reflected recognition that ideological purity was a luxury the group could not afford—again, at least for now. “All of a sudden, we found ourselves for the first time, and after a very, very short learning process, asked to take a position that would affect everybody’s lives,” Haddad told The Wall Street Journal.

In the early twenty-first century, the forces of globalization—from trade and tourism to the Internet—also make it tougher for Islamist parties to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Some parties, notably those in Egypt and Tunisia, could literally not afford to turn totally inward. After winning more than 25 percent of seats in Egypt’s parliament in 2012, the Salafi Nour Party proposed creating a new field of medical tourism to make Egypt, again like Brazil, into a center for lower-cost health care—even for Americans.

The Beginning

The modern Islamists have arrived where they are today through four phases. It has not been a straight trajectory. Each phase reflects the scope of change in size, political purpose, priorities, and tactics.

Politicized Islam—Islamism—originally emerged in response to multiple crises in the vacuum created by the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and as an alternative to the dominant ideologies of either East or West. Often in the context of European colonialism, Islamist leaders argued that the outside world was out to exploit, control, or destroy Muslim lands. The only way to defend the faith was to fight back, politically, socially, and physically.

Modern Islamism began with a tiny cell in 1928, when a twenty-two-year-old schoolteacher mobilized six disgruntled workers from Egypt’s Suez Canal Company. It was originally a social and religious movement. But Hassan al Banna’s little group grew into the Muslim Brotherhood, the first popular Islamist movement in the Arab world. It eventually spawned more than eighty branches worldwide.

The Brotherhood created the start-up model that initially focused on fusing Islam with public services, such as schools, clinics, cooperatives, social clubs, welfare providers, and religious support groups. The public services evolved into mini-states-within-states, taking on distinct political agendas for changing the rest of society too. Many other Islamist movements later duplicated the formula.

The first phase peaked in the 1970s, as secular ideologies failed to deliver. The turning point was the 1973 war, when Arabs fought for the first time in the name of Islam. Egypt’s attack on Israel was code-named Operation Badr after the Prophet Mohammed’s first victory in 623 AD. The Arabs again lost militarily, but they won political goals, including the principle of land for peace. Islam became a winning way to mobilize the public and fight a regional war.

By 1979, Islam also redefined regional politics. Iran’s fiery revolution coalesced disparate opposition groups under the banner of Islam. Led by a septuagenarian cleric, the coalition ended dynastic rule dating back more than 2,500 years and then created the world’s only modern theocracy. For the first time since the faith was founded fourteen centuries earlier, clerics ruled a state. Islam was suddenly a modern political alternative, too.

The seizure of Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mosque by a fundamentalist cell reflected the growing rejection of modernization based on Western ways, which had been the model in many countries since their independence decades earlier. During the two-week takeover, extremists declared the monarchy to be illegitimate. They proclaimed the rule of the Mahdi—the Muslim redeemer—until French forces were brought in to help retake Islam’s holiest shrine.

The drama led regimes across the region to redefine modernization in more Islamic terms. Shaken to the core, Saudi Arabia’s monarchy ceded greater ground to Wahhabi clerics. Even strictly secular regimes reacted. Under President Sadat, Egypt altered its constitution to ensure that Sharia, or Islamic law, was the basis of all legislation.

The second phase played out in the 1980s. It witnessed the rise of suicide extremism and mass violence. The trend started among Shiites, for whom martyrdom has been a central tenet for fourteen centuries. It soon spread to Sunni militants, for whom it was not a long-held belief. The violent tactics by religious extremists began to redefine modern warfare.

The embryonic cells of Lebanon’s Hezbollah initiated suicide bombings with attacks on American and Israeli targets in the early 1980s. As of early 2012, the largest single loss of U.S. military lives since World War II was still the Hezbollah bombing of the Marine peacekeepers’ barracks in October 1983 that killed 241. Two American embassies in Beirut were also destroyed, as were several military facilities of the occupying Israeli Defense Forces.

Among Sunnis, two militant movements seized the headlines away from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, an umbrella group for several secular factions. Islamic Jihad was launched in the early 1980s. Its manifesto called for elimination of the “Zionist entity” and creation of a Palestinian state governed by Islamic law. It dispatched dozens of human bombs against Israeli soldiers as well as civilians. Hamas emerged in 1987 during the grassroots uprising known as the Intifada, literally the “shaking off.” Hamas, too, soon started dispatching suicide warriors.

Throughout the 1980s, thousands of Sunnis from all twenty-two Arab nations also poured into South Asia to challenge the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. It was the first modern militant jihad. Many of these militant Arabs, including Osama bin Laden, later took their skills and passions home to launch local jihads.

In all three cases, militant groups justified violence as a response to intervention by outside armies or occupation by foreign powers. Again, from their perspective, violence was a reaction. The 1980s was a particularly deadly decade.

The third phase was marked by the rise of Islamist political parties in the 1990s. The emphasis shifted from the bullet to the ballot—or a combination of the two. Islamists began running within political systems, no longer simply sabotaging them from the outside. In the process, Islamists had to move beyond simplistic slogans to develop multi-issue action agendas.

Algeria was the trailblazer in 1991, as the Islamic Salvation Front began to beat more than fifty parties in the Arab world’s first fully democratic election. The Front was seen as a party of doers, in contrast to the corrupt and lethargic party that had ruled since independence three decades earlier. The experiment was derailed before the final runoff in 1992, when the Algerian army seized power. Backed by tanks on the streets of Algiers, the new junta nullified the vote, outlawed the Front, and imprisoned its leaders. An underground militant faction, the Armed Islamic Group, soon launched attacks on government targets. Over the next decade, more than 100,000 Algerians died in a civil war between the military regime and extremists.

Yet Islamic parties elsewhere continued the experiment, further spurred by two global shifts: The Cold War’s end altered the balance of power in the Middle East—and political calculations in the process. The first wave of democratic elections elsewhere—which empowered hundreds of millions of people, from Russia to Romania and from South Africa to Chile—inspired pursuit of individual empowerment.

In 1992, after a decade underground, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah led the Shiite party into Lebanese elections. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood ran for parliament in 1995, after a decade of competing under cover of other political parties. Jordan’s Islamic Action Front became the largest opposition party elected to parliament. From scenic Morocco and sleepy Kuwait to teeming Yemen, Islamist parties captured the imagination of many voters.

The fourth phase began after al Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001, which were as traumatic for many Muslims half a world away as for Americans who witnessed attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the Arab world, hundreds of millions found themselves tainted by a man and a movement they neither knew nor supported.

Muslims were also increasingly victimized, as extremists expanded their suicide attacks from Morocco on the Atlantic to Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf. Almost 3,000 people died on 9/11, but militants killed more than 10,000 of their brethren in suicide bombings and other attacks over the next decade. The extremist strategy backfired. In Arab eyes, the many forms of militancy proved costly, unproductive, and ultimately unappealing.

“Every mother in Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf country wants her son or daughter to carry a laptop rather than a rifle or a dagger,” reflected Khaled al Maeena, editor of Arab News, in Saudi Arabia in 2009. “The appeal of death and destruction doesn’t carry much significance anymore because the jihadis have failed to provide anything constructive.”

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Arab response was a kind of counterjihad—a rejection of extremist movements and tactics to achieve political goals. The response took many tangible forms. But among the most imaginative were the Islamist debates on university campuses, within civil society, among exiles, and even among jailed Islamists about the most effective means of change. The so-called prison debates—notably in Egypt and Libya—eventually led Egypt’s Islamic Group (al Gamaa al Islamiy-ya) to renounce violence in 2002 and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to reject terrorism in 2006. A string of public opinion polls since 2007 has tracked the steady decline in support for destructive jihad.

Key clerics also shifted positions. On the 9/11 anniversary in 2007, Sheikh Salman al Oudah, a Saudi cleric who had long been bin Laden’s earliest role model, wrote an open letter denouncing the al Qaeda chief. “How many innocent people, children, elderly, and women have been killed, maimed, or banished in the name of al Qaeda?” he wrote. “Will you be happy to meet God almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people on your back?”

A New Phase

In 2011, the raucous Arab uprisings began a new phase. It was launched by unprecedented displays of peaceful civil disobedience in the world’s most volatile region. Earlier phases were often a reaction to repressive regimes, regional conflicts, or foreign intervention. The new phase has more of a proactive mission.

This fifth phase is defined by two forces that to the outside world often seem contradictory: democracy and Islam. Polls in 2011 uniformly showed that the majority of Arabs wanted a greater say in their political life. The quest was framed more often as one for “social justice” and “dignity”—local catchphrases for self-determination, political participation, free speech, accountability, and equitable justice—than as a quest for liberal democracy.

But in postuprising countries, public opinion surveys also uniformly found that the majority favored parties that were shaped either moderately or strongly by Islamic values. The shift does not necessarily mean strict Islam as the only organizing principle of life, politics, education, social mores, and dress. Each country or culture has its own dynamics and issues. The shift can also mean reform in a conservative package.

The polls indicate that the election of Islamist parties reflects a shift extending beyond the devout. Many Arabs now want to use their faith as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself—or as a way to find answers rather than being the answer itself. Politically, Islam offers a comfortable space and legitimacy to search for solutions compatible with global trends. It is no longer about creating an ideal Islamic state. It is more about synthesizing Koranic values with ways of twenty-first-century life spawned by the Internet, Facebook, and satellite television.

The outside world views the shift as a drift toward Islamism. But many within the region instead see the Islamists being pulled toward democracy.

“The theocrats—represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists—now dominate a liberating political environment. In the process they are being democratized,” said Egyptian political scientist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who witnessed the prison debates while he was jailed for three years by the Mubarak regime.

“These are people dominated by an ideology that once said democracy was repugnant because it was a Western import. And now not only have they accepted it, but they are riding it and enjoying it. And in so doing—although they won’t admit it to you—they are legitimizing democracy in Egypt and, in turn, with Egypt as its intellectual center, the Arab world too,” Ibrahim explained. “Visiting Egypt a year from now, I doubt if you will find the lifestyle of Egyptians has changed. Politics yes, government maybe. But it’s much more difficult to change society.”

The New Spectrum

In the latest phase, Islamists are not “one size fits all.” Indeed, the new spectrum is something of a labyrinth in the early twenty-first century. But the parties generally break down into three broad categories, say Egyptian experts Ismail Alexandrani and Dina Shehata.

The first and most basic category is classical Islamism. Its goal is to implement Islamic law, or Sharia. Its political face focuses on ensuring that the government complies with fixed scriptures or texts. Classical Islamists demonstrate little adaptability. They trust clerics and religious scholars to speak and act on behalf of the people.

Classical Islamists can differ by sect, however, because of the disparate powers of their respective clerics. As a result, pure Islamism among Shiites is more likely to produce theocratic rule. Among Sunnis, pure Islamism is more likely to produce authoritarian rule, but not a theocracy. The difference dates back to the original schism within Islam in the seventh century over leadership and politics.

In Shiite Islam, the clerics are empowered to interpret God’s word to the faithful. As in Catholicism, the clergy has absolute power, which in Iran was translated into political power too after the 1979 revolution. The clerics now literally rule. Classical Shiite Islamism also considers the citizen to have responsibilities and duties, but not rights. Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini epitomized the classical Shiite Islamist.

In Sunni Islam, the clerics are only advisers to the faithful. So in Sunni Islamist societies, clerics are unlikely to become the rulers. Instead, Islamist leaders are more likely to be secular politicians who want to implement Islamic law, often with a singular vision. Classical Sunni Islamism has a ceiling on rights that is based on what is allowed in Islam, which would preclude alcohol, pornography, and homosexuality. The writings of Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb reflect the classical Sunni Islamism.

The Salafis are also classical Islamists. But they have their own subsections, again reflecting the Islamist maze. Among them are the following: The traditional or scholarly Salafis are basically “schools” gathered around specific clerics. The scientific Salafis are focused on learning Sharia but not on going into politics, except that they tend to vote as a bloc. The Costa Salafis, named after a chain of Cairo coffee shops where they tend to hang out, are from a younger generation. They do not necessarily take orders from their ultraconservative sheikhs and do share many of the original Tahrir protesters’ demands for political openings. The ex-jihadi Salafis include former extremists who have renounced violence and are largely in the Salafi political camp now.

The second broader category is neo-Islamism. Its members are more flexible, informed, and mature in their political outlook. For them, Sharia is about values, civilization, and political context. Neo-Islamists are seeking the ultimate objectives of Sharia but without bonding each situation to a certain religious text. They believe that Islam is dynamic and not a set of fixed rules and tenets, but rather an organic belief system that can adapt to or live with the times. Neo-Islamists can be progressive and, on some issues, even liberal. Neo-Islamists trust the reform scholars.

The Muslim Brotherhood has begun to move from classical Islamism to neo-Islamism, the two Egyptian experts contend. But the Brothers also have their own internal factions, each of which tugs the movement in a different direction. The conservative faction has unquestioning fealty to the organization and its dictates. The nationalist faction defines its agenda on the basis of the public interests of all Egyptians. And the neo-liberal faction, which is reflected in an emerging business elite, envisions the spread of Islamist goals through development or economic renaissance.

But the Brothers also have up to twenty different trends within the movement, according to Khaled Hanafy, a member of parliament and an ophthalmologist. “We share great principles, and within those principles we respect the differences,” he said. “We differ on education, culture, and the economic state. I even differ from my wife, who also ran for parliament. It is very good for the organization to have differences.”

The Brotherhood remains largely in the classical camp, however, because it invokes tight discipline over its members after deliberations. “When we decide, there is one opinion,” Hanafy added. “The majority decide, then the minority should obey.”

The third broader category is post-Islamism. Its adherents separate religious and political discourse, although they do not divorce values from politics. They would not, for example, embrace classical secularism. They do not publicly propagate Sharia, but as individuals they may be committed Muslims and consider ethics to be pivotal in political life.

Post-Islamists also believe that the people are the origin of political authority and power. They recognize the people’s responsibility for their choices. Post-Islamists remove the ceiling on rights, which are no longer limited by religious texts. And they trust people’s religious consciousness—without needing to rely on clerics or scholars. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party is the best example of post-Islamism.

The Future

The next decade will almost certainly be far more traumatic for both insiders and outsiders than the past decade, although often because of economic challenges as much as the new politics. Pity the inheritors of the Arab world’s broken political and economic systems, whoever they are.

Officials in elected Islamist governments have gradually acknowledged their naïve illusions about ruling. Mustapha Kamel Nabli, the governor of the Tunisian central bank, told the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, “One year ago, when the revolution started, I think we were dreaming, and we were dreaming with our feet in the sky. Now we are still dreaming, but we are dreaming with our feet on the ground.”

Political Goals

Despite stunning electoral endorsements, however, most individual Islamist parties had won only pluralities by early 2012. Only Hamas won an outright majority in the 2006 Palestinian vote. (Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood held back from running for the presidency or for all parliamentary seats in 2012.) Like parties of any ilk, Islamist parties will eventually want the majority.

Their next target may be municipal polls to deepen their hold. And the more power they accrue—like parties of any ilk—the less likely will be their need to compromise with others and the greater will be the danger of single-minded or narrow-minded rule.


At the same time, however, Islamist groups may also fragment further. Their spectrum may keep expanding as a result of either demographics or ideas. They already have different visions. For some, Islam offers values by which to define goals. For others, particularly for Salafis, Islam is the framework for all ways of life, public and private. Those fundamental differences may translate into specific flashpoints as parties sit down to write new constitutions, notably on provisions about how rigorously Islam’s social mores and penal code are implemented.

Diverse Islamist parties also cater to disparate segments of society. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s base draws significantly from the urban, the educated, and the professional classes, and from the middle and lower-middle classes. The Brotherhood has a sophisticated organization. Its members must pass standards and have references. And after eight decades, it has a mature understanding of Egyptian politics. In the 2005 elections, the Brotherhood won eighty-eight seats in parliament during Hosni Mubarak’s rule, making it the largest opposition party. For years, its members dominated Egypt’s professional unions, including syndicates for doctors and engineers.

By contrast, Egypt’s Salafi newcomers tend to be less educated and far more traditional. Their stronghold is in Alexandria and the Delta, with large pockets in greater Cairo. Because they renounced political life until after the 2011 uprising, they are poorly organized. Their Nour Party is little more than an assemblage of followers of diverse sheikhs. They are far more committed to social or lifestyle aspects of Sharia, or Islamic law. They are often impractical about solutions on big issues such as the economy.

Women’s Rights

Under Islamist regimes, women are unlikely to see many short-term benefits—and quite possibly could face serious setbacks. Women have been at the forefront of uprisings in every country. But few Islamist parties have enlightened or forward-leaning policies to promote gender equality. In Egypt, the Brotherhood has an active Sisterhood of female members, but it resists the idea of a female president.

The Salafis even refused to allow female candidates—mandated by election laws—to use their pictures in the campaign or on ballots. They also favor separation of the sexes. “We want segregation in school and in public and in the workplace so people can concentrate,” said Sheikh Mohammed Kurdy, a member of parliament from Egypt’s Nour Party. He has two wives and ten children.

The Economy

On the economy, most Islamists favor a balance between free markets and so-called social justice, which means more equitable distribution of resources long hoarded by autocratic regimes. Their policies stem from their service-oriented histories and mass grassroots support, as well as from their own experiences in small businesses or the professions.

“I would like to ask the businessmen in the room. Have you suffered from the victory of the Islamists? You supported the dictatorships in the past,” Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane told the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos. “Today we can guarantee your interests more than they did in the past.”

Foreign Policy

Relations between Islamist parties and the outside world will often be uneasy. The harder the party’s line, the harder their relations will be with others. The relationships could get quite tense. The two sides fundamentally view the political shift through different prisms. To the outside world, Islamists are pushing aside democrats, liberals, and secular politicians. To Islamists, democracy has prevailed after decades or centuries of autocratic rule.

“I do not believe the new regimes should be called political Islamist regimes. We must be careful with our terminology,” Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali told the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos. “For the first time in the Arab world, we have free and honest elections that led to democratic regimes.”


Across the board, Islamists want to cut back both foreign influence and foreign aid. Many believe that the colonial era has not yet really ended. But some also show a realism about diplomatic ties and aid.

“We want Egyptians to have a dignified life,” said Brotherhood foreign affairs spokesman Khaled Kazzaz. “One-third lives in poverty. One-third is illiterate. This means in the short term that we have to maintain and then strengthen our international relations. Long term we want to be less dependent. We are not in a phase where we will remove the plug of some of the funding. We need more funding. Our bigger priority is economic development.”

Pace of Change

Despite the breathtaking first year of political change, some Islamists indicated that they may not push for instant implementation of Sharia, especially its most controversial aspects.

“We all know there are some commands in Islam—for example, if you steal, your hand should be cut off,” said Sheikh Mohammed Kurdy, a Salafi member of parliament from Egypt’s Nour Party. “But we may delay some of it for now because of conditions in the country. We can’t do it until everyone will have a place to live, food to eat, a job. They should not be thinking of stealing then because they won’t need to steal.”

Yet political Islam is also, for now, a driving force in the new order. “Without Islam, we will not have any real progress,” explained Diaa Rashwan of Cairo’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“If we go back to the European Renaissance, it was based on Greek and Roman philosophy and heritage. When Western countries built their own progress, they didn’t go out of their epistemological or cultural history. Japan is still living in the culture of the Samurai, but in a modern way. The Chinese are still living the traditions created by Confucianism. Their version of communism is certainly not Russian.

“So why,” he mused, “do we have to go out of our history?”

Robin Wright is a joint fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the U.S. Institute of Peace. A former correspondent for The Washington Post, her most recent book is Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World (2011). Her blog is and her book website is


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The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties.  They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.

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