Between people power and state power

By Frederic Volpia & Ewan Stein

This paper examines the trajectories of different Islamist trends in the light of the Arab uprisings.


It proposes a distinction between statist and non-statist Islamism to help understand the multiplicity of interactions between Islamists and the state, particularly after 2011.

It is outlined how statist Islamists (Islamist parties principally) can contribute to the stabilization and democratization of the state when their interactions with other social and political actors facilitate consensus building in national politics.

By contrast when these interactions are conflictual, it has a detrimental impact on both the statist Islamists, and the possibility of democratic politics at the national level.

Non statist-Islamists (from quietist salafi to armed jihadi) who prioritize the religious community over national politics are directly impacted by the interactions between statist Islamists and the state, and generally tend to benefit from the failure to build a consensus over democratic national politics.

Far more than nationally-grounded statist Islamists, non-statist Islamists shape and are shaped by the regional dynamics on the Arab uprisings and the international and transnational relations between the different countries and conflict areas of the Middle East.

The Arab uprisings and their aftermath reshaped pre-existing national and international dynamics of confrontation and collaboration between Islamists and the state, and between statist and non-statists Islamists, for better (Tunisia) and for worse (Egypt).

Islamism, the state and socio-historical changes

For a brief moment during the 2011 Arab uprisings, Islamism seemed to have become somewhat irrelevant.

A year later, with the electoral gains made by many Islamists movements in the newly democratic atmosphere that then characterized the region, they appeared to be back on top of (and dictating) the political agenda.

At the time of writing (early 2015), the wheel has turned again and neither democratic- nor Islamist-oriented institutional evolutions seem to be making headway.

A large (perhaps the largest) part of the apparent difficulty in delineating the Islamist factor relates to identifying and explaining political Islam/Islamism.

Whatever Islamism may be – and the perspectives that we will be proposing in the following are analytical distinctions, not the “real face” of Islamism – the generic representations of the phenomenon that tend to dominate the political debate are commonly formatted to fit pre-existing explanations of political and institutional behaviour.

Beyond pointing out that political Islam has many faces, we contend that making analytical distinctions within political Islam to reflect broader path dependencies is crucial to understanding the role, and fate, of Islamism during and after the Arab uprisings.

Specifically, the many faces of Islamism reflect the different models of state governance that have predominated in the Middle East region (and beyond) over the years.

This is particularly the case for those Islamists that we categorize as “statist” to emphasize the close connection between national structures of governance and the strategies of activists in their particular socio-cultural and socio-economic circumstances.

It is those statist Islamists that, due to their aspirations to acquire state power, have been most obviously affected by regime change, reform, or hardening during the Arab uprisings.

Islamism is evidently not always best defined by its relationship with the state.

For “non-statist” Islamists, the uprisings and their aftermath hold a different significance, even though they are affected by the changes in the relationship between the state and statist Islamists.

We distinguish non-statist Islamists by the primacy they accord to their relationship to the community instead of the state.

This very broad category includes quietist grassroots movements inspired by salafism as well as violent transnational jihadi organizations, although important distinctions exist between them.

Whether they seek to avoid politics altogether or have a vision of a political community not bound to the modern nation state, these groups compete with statist Islamists for the Islamic high ground, thereby indirectly shaping national political landscapes.

Crucially, these modalities of Islamist activism do not always correspond neatly to divisions between groups but can coexist within the same organization: the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has strong statist and non-statist orientations, although the former commonly structures the latter.

Conversely, following the Arab uprisings, traditionally non-statist salafi formations engaged in state-level politics (most notably the Egyptian Nour Party).

In the following, we present an analytical perspective on the evolution of the relationship between Islamists and the state grounded on this distinction between two path-dependent configurations of contemporary Islamism.

In section 2 below, we discuss how forms of governance and developmentalism influenced political Islam in the preceding decades.

Then in section 3 we focus more specifically on the dynamics of statist Islamism in the context of these political evolutions before, during and since the Arab uprisings.

Section 4 follows the same approach to elucidate non-statist modalities of Islamist activism.

In section 5 we offer some explanations for the differential outcomes, particularly between Egypt and Tunisia, in the wake of the uprisings.

2. Islamism and evolving models of governance and development

Seen from the vantage point of the politics of the nation-state, the evolution and diversification of Islamism reflects trajectories of state formation and socio-economic development in the Middle East and the rest of the developing world.

In debates of the 1960s and 1970s dominated by modernization theory and class analysis, Islamism hardly featured in political analyses of Middle Eastern and other Muslim-majority developing countries.

When it was considered, it tended to be dismissed as a rear-guard battle from traditional social forces heading for the dustbin of history.

State-builders focussed on developing strong institutions and a modern socio-economic system, generally inspired by liberal or socialist models.

The modernist and authoritarian-populist Nasser regime had crushed the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, by then the leading Islamist movement in the region, in the second half of the 1950s. But the Nasserite model, widely assumed to exemplify the shape of things to come in the region, lasted barely a couple of decades.

By the mid-1970s, Arab-socialism was falling apart in most of the region, while “anachronistic” regimes such as those of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States were beginning to promote a rather different developmental pathway allying economic modernism with patrimonial rule and religious legitimation strategies.

In the 1980s, in the wake of the Iranian revolution, Islamism was deemed to be concerned primarily with the establishment of an “Islamic state”.

It was viewed, in part, as a kind of nationalist and revolutionary movement seeking to capture the institutions of the state to implement top-down its preferred new social order, just like other such movements from the left and the right had done previously throughout the region.

In practice, the growing autonomy and internal fracturing of Islamist movements in the 1980s owed much to the Islamic revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood mostly applauded the revolution and saw it as evidence that Islamism could succeed in taking state power.

Salafis, on the other hand, opposed it on principle and condemned Khomeinism on sectarian grounds.

Arab regimes were able to withstand the challenge, in part because of their coercive resources, and in part because the mainstream Islamist movements at the time calculated that they lacked the societal base to spark an Iranian-style revolution.

The failure of the jihad in Egypt to launch a large-scale popular insurrection in the wake of President Sadat’s assassination in 1981 suggested to many Islamist activists that Arab societies were not ready for an Islamic revolution.

When revolutionary Islamism failed by and large to be replicated outside Iran, the challenge to the state posed by political Islam was deemed by some scholars to have missed.

With the increasingly evident failure of state modernism and developmentalism, and the growing influence of the Saudi model, dependent on oil rents, Arab states entered a phase of “post-populism”.

This was reinforced in the 1980s and 1990s by the spread of neo-liberalism to the region under pressure from the International Monetary Fund.

Post-populism represented a means whereby authoritarian regimes could strengthen themselves even as they abandoned the old populist social contract, by diversifying their constituencies and diluting potential political opposition from civil society.

This entailed combinations of increased dependence on external sources of revenue (or “rents”), limited political opening and some “outsourcing” of governance to non-state actors such as Islamist charities.

From the perspective of regimes, Islamism also served the broader purposes of neoliberal reform to the extent that it fostered self-help strategies on the part of local populations, providing not only spiritual services, but also educational, medical and financial support.

The post-populist turn towards neoliberalism created new domestic environments for social and political activism.

Islamist movements made headway in society because they proposed a model of religious solidarity that responded, and adapted, to the down scaling of the role of the state throughout the region.

As democratizing discourse entered the region after 1990, some Islamists movements portrayed their new involvement in electoral politics as a means of nurturing a “good” Muslim society (and as such an endeavour which could be intellectually reconciled with their ideological emphasis on God’s sovereignty).

In parallel, however, post-populist regimes adopted more sophisticated versions of “divide and rule” by which they sought to control rising Islamism, particularly through provoking or exploiting “culture wars”8 between Islamist and secular actors.

Absent the interest aggregation and mediation function of democracy, competition in civil and political society was played out on the terrain of morality and identity, with the cultural sphere (that is influence over education, media and cultural production) being the only one to which authoritarian regimes devolved any substantial power.

This had the effect of depoliticising public discourse as a whole in many Middle Eastern countries and strengthening movements, like Islamism, that prioritized culture and identity.

The “culture wars” waged by Islamist activists against secular civil society, and vice versa, militated against unified oppositions to regimes in many Arab states.

The Islamist movement itself was divided along many lines from the 1980s, including between those that favoured accommodation with the regime and participation in pseudo-democratic politics (the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties), those that sought disengagement from state-level politics altogether (salafis) and those who sought to impose their vision of an Islamic order via the violent overthrow of the existing social and political system (jihadists).

Within each of these categories, furthermore, differences over strategy existed.

Nevertheless, during the 1990s Islamism grew to constitute the principal (if not sole) viable alternative to secular authoritarianism in much of the region, a reality that was emphasized but not invented by regimes that sought to frighten the western democracies into keeping them in power.

After 11 September 2001, analyses inspired by the “war on terror” tended to categorize Islamist movements primarily in relation to their use of violent rhetoric or practices, overlooking the different articulations and trajectories of Islamism.

However, as Francois Burgat indicates, over-emphasis on one type of violent Islamism overshadowed other forms of Islamist activism.

Using violence as the main distinction among Islamic movements obscures important structural similarities and overlaps between jihadi and salafi groups, in particular their shared ambivalence toward state-level politics and attempt to operate beyond or in defiance of the state.

Shifts in state-society relations did not affect them in the same way as they did those Islamists that sought state power.

The focus on Islamist violence parallel to the increased focus of the international community on “hard” security issues was matched by a “hardening” of the Middle Eastern states and a political discourse dominated by securitization.

Keen to tap into the external support offered under the rubric of the “war on terror”, regimes cracked down on violent and non-violent Islamist opposition alike.

The 2011 Arab uprisings marked another re-articulation of the relationship between the state and Islamism.

The process of regional “state weakening”, which arguably began with the external shock of the US invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, continued with regime changes in Libya and Yemen, as well as the civil war in Syria.

The weakening of state power in all these cases vastly increased the salience of non-statist salafi and jihadi movements.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the Arab uprisings fundamentally challenged the “cronyistic” development strategies pursued by the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes. In neither case, however, did the Islamist beneficiaries of these uprisings offer compelling alternatives to this economic model.

Ennahda in Tunisia – and the political class as a whole – remained vulnerable to bottom-up pressure from the marginalized (muhammishin), who looked to salafism as a more promising vehicle for social inclusion.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was pushed aside by the military after a lacklustre year in power which, if it did not disprove the claim that “Islam is the solution”, cast doubt on the capacity of Islamism’s oldest movement to implement it.

Political discourse there reverted to familiar “war on terror” territory, as the state relied more than ever on virtually unchecked coercive power to deal with the “Islamist threat”.

to be continued


Frédéric Volpi is Deputy Director of the Institute of Middle East and Central Asia Studies and Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of a number of books on political Islam and democracy in the Muslim world, and is coordinator of the BRISMES research network.

Ewan Stein – Senior Lecturer in International Relations. His research interests include the international relations of the Middle East, particularly the role of ideology and intellectual dynamics, political Islam, and the politics and foreign policy of Egypt.


University of Edinburgh




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