Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University:
The experience of the 2011 uprisings and their bewildering, dispiriting, and divergent outcomes are already reshaping the nature, strategy, organization, and ideology of Islamist movements in some profound ways. In the decades prior to 2011, Islamist movements that followed (and sometimes preceded) the path of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by gradually investing more in politics, attempting to pursue a part of their Islamizing agenda through whatever openings authoritarian regimes allowed, held center stage. Their dominant presence was far short of a monopoly, of course, with some groups (some salafis, al-Qa`ida) positioning their approaches, at least in part, in contradistinction to the Brotherhood. But for a brief moment after 2011, that political approach seemed to prepare Islamists well for the post-uprisings struggle. Seven years later, most have little to show for their political efforts, and some have been brutally shoved out of the political sphere.
Already five effects are clear.
First, movements whose leaders prided themselves on patience, gradualism, and avoiding violence find themselves pressed by calls for revolution and revenge. The bitterness is particularly strong in Egypt, where the violence of 2013 has left a deep wound in the society that will work its effects for years to come.
Second, a generation gap has opened in many movements. Of course, activists in and observers of Islamist movements have spoken of generations before, but what seems to be at issue now is the very idea of a hierarchical and formal movement. Throughout the region, the credibility of political parties, clear organizational frameworks, identifiable and authoritative leaders seem to have rapidly receded for many younger activists.
Third, the suspicion of formal organizations can often spread to politics and state structures more generally. An earlier generation of Islamist leaders sought not to dismantle the state but to use politics as a means to guide (and, if circumstances allowed, even lead) the state apparatus. Of course, there were dissonant voices building more on Sayyid Qutb’s denunciation of domination of human beings by other human beings—so what may be happening is that such dissonant voices become more mainstream. Talk of elections or of gaining ministerial seats seem anachronistic; attacking the deep state seems to many a far more realistic rather than a utopian approach given the bitter post-2011 experience.
Fourth, Islamist movements driven from public life will likely find it more difficult to enmesh themselves in broader and public social and religious work, gain experience working with rivals and partners, and recruit new members. For decades, Islamists had gradually (and not without sacrifice and difficulty) established themselves in universities, professional associations, and throughout many other parts of society. They were an active public presence, and, for many, an attractive one, as students, pious individuals, and ambitious and idealistic youth were drawn to their orbit. Some formally joined while others ultimately demurred but left with a sense that Islamists were not a distant bogeyman but a set of former classmates. Such presence is now forcefully denied to many Islamists, and those whom they can draw to their ranks are likely to be smaller in number and more hardened in their experiences.
Many observers of Islamist movements at this point might object to my analysis as overly Egypt-centric. That criticism is fair—in fact the separation of the Egyptian from the broader Arab experience is the fifth development. It is true that the experience of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is my starting point. And it is also true that all the trends I identify can be found elsewhere—suspicion of existing parties and movements is particularly strong in the Palestinian case; recruitment is a problem for Islamists movements in the Arabian peninsula; the generation gap is region-wide.
But the fact that the Egyptian experience has become distinctive—one which many movements in the region wish to distance themselves from—is striking. Morocco’s PJD is grappling with the prospect of co-optation; Hamas is working to downplay its strong historical ties with what it used to call its “mother movement” in Egypt; the leaders of Tunisia’s al-Nahda began to distance themselves from the Egyptian Brotherhood even during the Morsi presidency and is operating in a political environment in which the Brotherhood’s experience seems to have little relevance.
And it is not simply that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is a negative example; Egypt more generally is less salient for Islamists even when they focus on politics. Syria is likely to absorb more energy and attention; the harshness among Gulf states is more pressing for the moment.
This is a very different scene from that which existed a decade ago, likely calling not simply for newer understandings but newer approaches and newer scholarly voices to help us understand more fully.