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Religion and Society

Islamist Parties and Democracy: a Paradoxical Relationship

Amongst the voices that have been raised to comment on the ousting of the Egyptian President Morsi there could not fail to be those of the Islamist parties and movements which, like the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, benefited from the process that was set in motion by the revolts and revolutions of 2010-2011. Both the Justice and Development Party in Morocco and al-Nahda in Tunisia swiftly intervened to condemn the ousting of Morsi and avoid scenarios similar to that in Egypt. The Islamist party in Morocco, which was involved in a crisis of government, confined itself to circumstantial declarations, affirming the illegitimacy of the ousting of Morsi but at the same time pointing to the differences between the Egyptian case and the Moroccan. Al-Nahda and its president Rashid al-Ghannoushi were more forthright, first with a communiqué and then with a letter by which the influential Islamist leader invited the Egyptians, who were defined as ‘the noble descendants’ of the Islamic conquerors of Egypt, to continue to demonstrate to ‘restore legitimacy, so that the elected president, President Morsi, could continue the task that the Egyptian people entrusted to him’.

 

 

These demonstrations of solidarity provoke a number of question about the failure of the Egyptian Islamists and the experiences that are underway in other countries and more in general about the capacity of Islamist forces and people to guide the transition to democracy.

 

 

Obviously enough, the difference between the Egyptian context and that of other countries impedes the outlining of facile parallelisms. In Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brothers, monopolised the national political stage because of its electoral results, the temporary acquiescence of the army, and the fragmentation and inefficacy of the parliamentary opposition. The Moroccan and Tunisian Islamists, on the other hand, have had to deal with more complex situations: the need to form coalition governments (neither the Justice and Development party nor al-Nahda have an absolute majority in parliament) and to act within an institutional and social framework that is more binding, being dominated in Morocco by the presence of the monarchy and in Tunisia by the legacy of the Bourguiba regime and the hostility of broad sectors of civil society.

 

 

At the level of ideals, however, the differences, above all in the case of the Egyptian and Tunisian Islamists, are fewer. Both the Muslim Brothers and al-Nahda wanted to present themselves as ‘moderate’ forces that were able to contribute the process of democratic reform because of their Islamic identity. But it was precisely the nexus between democracy and Islam, in which very many observers saw the opening of a new political stage for the Middle East, that turned out to be problematic. Indeed, Islamists understand that nexus as an identification of two elements, where the first (democracy) does not have an autonomous legitimisation which is derived directly from the second (Islam, according to its Islamist interpretation). For this reason, Ghannoushi wrote that the return of Morsi to the task that ‘the Egyptian people entrusted to him’ would constitute a ‘victory not only for the will of the Egyptians but also for the principles of democracy, of freedom and of Islam’, without him being concerned, however, to come to terms with the striking failures of the Egyptian President.

 

 

Democracy in this way ends up by coinciding with a process that allows a people to express an (Islamist) Islamic government and the Islamist formations to claim a hegemonic role not only because of their electoral weight but also because of their supposed ability to interpret the deep identity of society. From this point of view, the authoritarian negative tendency of the Islamist forces is not the outcome of a degeneration of their political action – it is intrinsic to their nature, and its being contained does not depend on internal elements but only upon the efficacy of external forces (the army and the streets in Egypt, civil society in Tunisia).

 

 

As Massimo Borghesi demonstrated in his recent Critica della teologia politica (‘Critique of Political theology’), democracy does not require the exclusion of religious subjects from the public sphere (indeed it can benefit from them) but it does require that the theological does not totalise the political, and this is even more the case in societies that no longer have a shared vision of the contents and the implications of faith.

 

 

This raises a very serious problem about the transition of the post-revolutionary Arab societies. The relationship between the Islamist parties and democracy is, in fact, paradoxical. On the one hand, they are not able to contribute to the edification of the an authentically democratic system. But, on the other, no system will be truly democratic if it excludes the forces and people that feel that they are represented by the Islamist parties. Political Islam has already failed (Oliver Roy was right about this twenty years ago) but going beyond this requires political actors who know how to reformulate the relationship between religion and politics in an adequate way without passing by way of secularist short-cuts or ones that are ‘diversely-fundamentalist’ (the Salafis).

 

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