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Analysts: Future of Political Islam Tenuous

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists call out from the defendants cage as they receive sentences ranging from death by hanging for one, life in prison for 13 and 8-15 years for the others after they were convicted of murder, rioting, and violence in a mass trial in Alexandria, Egypt, May 19, 2014.
With the downfall of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the militant approach of Islamists in Iraq, Syria, Libya, analysts say the future of political Islam in the Arab world is tenuous.

Tarek Abdel Hamid, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy, said Islamists need to moderate their ideology and define a political model.

“In the past the military regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq used security measures to repress Islamists, but now because of their ideological defeat, the population turned against them, so they will have a very negative future.” he said.

As a former member of a militant Islamist group in Egypt, Abdel Hamid said Islamists biggest enemy is their ideology.

“They are not fit to rule because they are still motivated by ideology not focusing on pragmatic solutions for citizens’ demands whether the economy, social justice, gender equality or freedom of religion,” he said.

But Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said while the Muslim Brotherhood failed to govern in Egypt, he is convinced that political Islam will have a future.

“There is a widespread support in the deeply conservative societies in the region for Islamists’ objective of more mix of religion and politics, so if there is a popular demand for this, someone has to supply it,” he said.

Hamid said the military coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was critical in strengthening the narrative of more extremist Islamists who believe that violence is the only way.

“This is a Salafi moment in the Middle East; it is the first time we have Salafi-Jihadi groups using arms to control large areas in Syria first and now in Iraq,” he said.

But while analysts say what has happened in Egypt will not easily replicate itself in the region, Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said that it has already affected thinking throughout Islamist circles everywhere.

“It has inspired some governments to move against Islamists and has made some Islamists reevaluate their surroundings,” he said. “Political Islam is hardly dead, but the movements that lead Islamism into the formal political process are likely to be just a little bit more leery of that path almost everywhere—and perhaps totally shut out of it in Egypt.”

He said it is unclear how those dedicated to Islamizing politics will react. Some may turn away from politics, he said, others might turn in more conservative or even radical directions.

Hamid said obituaries of political Islam are premature.

“You can kill an organization but killing an idea is much more difficult. Even if we saw Islamists at an existential threat, their vision for the society is deeply entrenched in the region,” he said.

Banning the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - the Arab World’s original Islamist movement - does not mean that a lot of people will give up on the idea of the role of religion in public life, Hamid said.

“In spite of repression of Nasser in Egypt, Hafez Al Assad in Syria and Ben Ali in Tunisia we saw the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and Syria, and [the] Ennahda movement in Tunisia recovered and reemerged once there was a political opening.” he said.

Hamid sees Tunisia as a relative success story for political Islam because Ennahda Islamists understood the strength of secular opposition, respected it and voluntarily stepped down from power.

Experts say that Islamist movements are likely to stay in one form or another, but they need to be responsive to popular demands.

Hamid said that for democracy to flourish in the Middle East, it will have to find a way to avoid excluding Islamist parties from political life.

“The struggle for and within political Islam is important for what it can tell us about how beliefs and ideology are mediated and altered by the political process,” he said.

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