Francesco Cavatorta, professor of political science, Université Laval:
I think that what Philbrick Yadav had to say about “following the money or following the guns” is particularly relevant to how Islamist movements across the region can be directly influenced by external actors. This is even more the case for more marginal Islamist movements attempting to possibly carve out a larger domestic role. At the same time, domestic/national developments could also have international spillovers.
I am thinking in particular of the changes that occurred in the Tunisian Ennahda, which is something that Freer also mentioned. They have broken in a way with the Egyptian Brotherhood and its ideology, preferring instead to re-orient their ideological references to the Tunisian intellectual context and making references to Tunisian and Maghrebi scholars with a less dogmatic view of the role of Islam in politics and society. It could be envisaged then that parties like Ennahda in Tunisia and the Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD) in Morocco might be able to influence Islamist parties in the broader Middle East, as they have been somewhat successful in integrating their domestic political systems. One might argue that they have done so by renouncing all the main tenets and objectives of Islamism, but one could also argue that their role has been instrumental in avoiding the violence and chaos that engulfed many other countries in the region and they have therefore fulfilled in part the role of “saviors” of the Islamic community from widespread violence and instability.
I believe that there are a number of lessons that other Islamist movements can learn from what has occurred to Islamist politics in Tunisia and Morocco despite the trajectories of the two political systems diverging after the uprisings, but two points stand out for me. First is that the national environment matters and that it is pointless to attempt to operate as if ideological purity were the only criterion to be successful. There are compromises to be made and bargains to be entered into. Daily politicking is crucial if a party wants to achieve at least some of its objectives in a plural society and the domestic environment is what first and foremost shapes such compromises. The rigidity of some Islamist parties, as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, can be conducive to greater conflict. Second, voters matter and voters seem to care quite a bit about practical issues rather than ideology. I think that Ennahda and the PJD’s electoral fortunes (and misfortunes) highlight the point that other Islamist movements should focus on this and attempt to introduce and discuss policies that speak to voters. This is quite banal, of course, but it seems to me that creating coalitions and seeking allies should be the way to proceed to enter or re-enter (as in Egypt) the political-institutional game. Morocco and Tunisia represent least-awful scenarios. These countries might not be doing that great, but there is a degree of freedom, institutions are more responsive and there is no widespread violence or chaos. Islamists in the two have greatly contributed to this and others might want to take a page out of their playbook.