‘Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East’, by Shadi Hamid (Oxford University Press, RRP£18.99/RRP$27.95)
What do Islamists want? And can they evolve into more mainstream political actors and adapt to the responsibility of governing? Such questions are at the centre of the political debate about the future of the Middle East. In the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2011, the answer seemed at hand, as Islamists emerged as leading beneficiaries of the collapsing autocratic order. But two different experiences have since developed: a botched Islamist transition in Egypt and more hopeful progress in Tunisia.
In Egypt, the main Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted in a military coup and faces the most relentless wave of repression since its foundation more than 80 years ago. In Tunisia the Nahda party has forged political compromises with its secular-minded opponents and secured a more stable future for its organisation.
Temptations of Power by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution think-tank provides a timely exploration of what allowed a group like the Muslim Brotherhood to succeed after the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square – and why it failed so spectacularly.
The book tries to cover too much ground but it provides a useful contribution to a raging debate over political Islam. It is most insightful in its treatment of Egypt.
Hamid argues that the repression of the 1990s, which restricted the political activities of Islamists but often tolerated their religious organisations and their provision of social services, helped moderate and mature their political positions and established them as a potent, organised opposition set to benefit from the collapse of autocratic regimes.
Islamists were deeply affected in that decade by the Algeria debacle, where the army intervened to stop the Islamic Salvation Front winning elections. The anti-Islamist mood hardened across the region, halting an experiment in democracy in Jordan and tightening the noose around the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Under pressure, the Islamists worked hard to polish their message and their image. “Repression, and the fear of it, pushed mainstream Islamist parties to fundamentally rethink their priorities,” says Hamid. “They thought that de-emphasising Islamic law and saying and doing the ‘right things’ on democracy, pluralism, and women’s and minority rights would put them in a stronger position . . . They sought allies from across the ideological and political spectrum . . . They democratised their organisational structures.”
Even when they were able to compete in elections, they were cautious not to overplay their hand. That put them in a position, though, in which “if Arab regimes ever fell, however unlikely that seemed, it was Islamists who were best positioned to replace them”.
This trend was reinforced after the attacks of September 11 2001, which provided fresh ammunition for governments to crack down on Islamists, whether extremist or moderate, and put organisations such as the Brotherhood on the defensive. In 2004, for example, a Brotherhood reform initiative was launched representing, according to Hamid, an effort to elevate the cause of democracy in Egypt.
Hamid argues that the collapse of the Mubarak regime was a threat as much as an opportunity for an organisation that had grown accustomed to the unifying power of repression.
Many factors contributed to the Islamists’ failure in government. Without a clear enemy, the task of ensuring discipline became tougher. In office, “moderation” dissipated as the rhetoric veered to the right. The inherent illiberalism of Islamists returned to the surface and was reinforced by an attitude that dismissed liberal opponents and catered to the Islamist base. This included the puritanical Salafis who had unexpectedly performed well in elections.
The group’s paranoia, cultivated during the years of repression, was partly imagined and partly real. But it proved destructive. Hosni Mubarak’s deep state – security, judiciary and bureaucracy – worked to undermine the Brotherhood. The army, for the most part, was not an ally.
Islamist president Mohamed Morsi’s most provocative moves seemed to be “animated by an endless reservoir of distrust and dismissiveness towards . . . opponents”. The 2012 constitutional decree in which he handed himself vast powers was prompted by fears that the election results would be dissolved by the judiciary, and that his organisation could be banned.
“The Brotherhood were, in a sense, vindicated by the coup that ousted the first freely elected president – and the fact that nearly all prominent liberals backed it. But it was also, in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy,” argues Hamid. “In expecting the worst, you act in ways that make your feared outcome all the more likely.”
The reviewer is the FT’s foreign editor